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Admission to the Singapore Bar: Clarifying the framework for situations of applicant misconduct Re Suria Shaik Aziz

I. Executive Summary

Re Suria Shaik Aziz [2023] SGHC 129 considers whether an applicant who has committed plagiarism in respect of a law school assignment can be admitted as an Advocate and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore. Mr Suria Shaik Aziz (“Suria”) had admitted to plagiarising materials for a research paper submitted for a law module taken in his last semester at the University of Tasmania (“the University”). Consequentially, he received a letter of formal reprimand from the University.

The General Division of the High Court (“HC”) considered that Suria’s behaviour called into question his character and suitability to “shoulder the weighty responsibilities that come with being an Advocate and Solicitor in Singapore”. It held that Suria was not a “fit and proper person” to be admitted at the time of the hearing, as he had demonstrated a continued lack of appreciation of the ethical implications of his misconduct. The HC considered that he would benefit from taking more time to “sharpen his awareness of the ethical implications that inhere in the decisions and choices” he would have to make as an Advocate and Solicitor in Singapore. Hence, the HC granted Suria leave to withdraw his application, subject to his undertaking not to bring a fresh application to the Bar in Singapore or elsewhere for four months.

In his last semester at the University, Suria took a course on International Trade Law (“Law Module”). As part of the course, he was expected to submit a research paper. There were two components to it: a preparatory research outline which was ungraded, and subsequently the actual research paper.

On 13 September 2016, Suria submitted a very brief research outline that predominantly consisted of a table. A screening by anti-plagiarism software Turnitin determined that the table was lifted from an internet source, without any attribution of the source. This prompted a warning from the Law Module professor to Suria, stating that there had been “[m]assive copying – entire table is lifted from elsewhere without quotation marks and acknowledgment”, and that there would have been “very serious repercussions” had the research outline been a graded assessment.

On 28 October 2016, Suria submitted his actual research paper – he had been granted some time extensions due to medical issues he was suffering at the time. Turnitin screening showed a similarity index of 42%. Suria later disclosed that he had checked the similarity index prior to submitting his paper and was aware of the very high similarity index reported by Turnitin.

A few days later, the head of the University’s law faculty (“Head of School”) informed Suria that he faced an allegation of academic misconduct. Suria explained to the Head of School that he had been rushing to meet the deadline for his paper and did not have sufficient time to complete his referencing before submission. He also told her that he had no “‘malicious intention to pass off anyone else’s work as [his] own and that [he] merely had an incomplete paper that was not appropriately referenced’”.

The Head of School subsequently issued him a letter (the “Letter”) noting that his actions amounted to academic misconduct: “whole paragraphs had been adopted, in some cases with minor rewording, from website sources with no acknowledgment, and in other cases, only indirect acknowledgment”, and this was done despite repeated warnings about plagiarism. Suria subsequently received a letter of formal reprimand from the University.

On 13 June 2022, Suria filed an application to be admitted as an Advocate and Solicitor in Singapore. In the first affidavit submitted (“Part Call Affidavit”), in support of his application to be part-called to the Singapore Bar under section 32(3) of the Legal Profession Act (“LPA”), Suria did not disclose the plagiarism incident. However, Suria disclosed the plagiarism in a subsequent affidavit (“Admission Affidavit”) as part of his application to be called to the Singapore Bar. On request by the Attorney General’s Chambers (“AGC”) he further explained (in a “Supplementary Affidavit”) that he had had to deal with some health issues at the time and as such had insufficient time to complete the appropriate research and attributions for his paper. AGC subsequently requested further information about the “repeated warnings about plagiarism” in the Letter, and why Suria had not mentioned these warnings in his Supplementary Affidavit. Suria explained that the “repeated warnings” likely referred to his Law Module professor’s feedback in relation to his outline. He explained that he had not mentioned this previously because the outline was not graded; further he could not remember the incident clearly because it had occurred in 2016. AGC subsequently sought further information from Suria’s university, which revealed the rest of the situation.

At the time the case went before the HC, AGC and other stakeholders indicated that they had no objections to Suria’s application. 

As stated in Re Wong Wai Loong Sean [2022] SGHC 237 and Re Tay Jie Qi [2023] SGHC 59 (“Re Tay Jie Qi”), where there is no question as to the applicant’s competence or qualifications, the central inquiry is whether the applicant in question is suitable for admission in terms of his character. Where there have been one or more incidents of misconduct suggesting the need to “drill further” into the issue, the court will examine:

(a) the circumstances of the applicant’s misconduct;

(b) his conduct during the initial investigations;

(c) the nature and extent of subsequent disclosures made in his application for admission;

(d) any evidence of remorse; and

(e) any evidence of efforts planned or already initiated towards rehabilitation. 

These were “signposts” indicating the “nature and severity” of the applicant’s character issues, whether there was a need for a deferment of admission and if so, the amount of time needed to resolve those character issues. In this case,

The HC focused on points (b) and (c) here. Point (e) was not considered as Suria did not bring up any efforts planned or already initiated towards rehabilitation. 

The HC also explained that even where an applicant has maintained a clean record after the misconduct in question, the court had to consider whether the applicant had sufficiently reflected on his wrongdoing and gained sufficient insight into how and why he had gone wrong, to provide adequate assurance that the issue had been recognised and was not likely to recur. “True reflection and insight” was not just realizing that one’s actions are wrong or against the rules; the applicant needs to understand why his actions were wrong, the rationale behind the rules, and the effect and consequences of not adhering to those rules. Such understanding is necessary for true rehabilitation and transformation.

The HC also reiterated that the purpose of a deferment in admission applications was rehabilitative, not punitive. Further, deferment in admission applications was not a matter of routine: the need for deferment, the appropriate duration, and its efficacy must be carefully considered. The question was not whether the applicant has been sufficiently punished for the misconduct, but whether the applicant has sufficiently reformed her character issues and demonstrated her suitability to shoulder the weighty responsibilities that come with being an Advocate and Solicitor in Singapore.

A. The circumstances of Suria’s misconduct 

The HC first determined the precise nature of Suria’s misconduct. Specifically: whether Suria intended to or appreciated that he would pass the plagiarised materials off as his own, or whether he made an innocent omission to cite the appropriate sources for these materials. The former would suggest dishonesty whereas the latter may suggest a lack of attention to detail, or even neglect or sloppiness.

The HC noted that Suria was aware of the high similarity index reported by Turnitin at the time he submitted the research paper. Suria also accepted that the effect of submitting the paper without proper referencing was that he "passed off the work of others as his own. However, Suria contended that: (a) he did not appreciate that this was the effect at the time of submission; and (b) he was focused on submitting the paper within the extended timeline, even though, given the high similarity index, he did not expect that the paper would get a passing mark.

The HC rejected the explanations. Regarding point (b), the HC found that if Suria indeed was not expecting to get a passing mark for his research paper, it made no sense that he would have gone ahead and submitted it. More importantly, given the warnings Suria received about plagiarism being wholly unacceptable and being visited with dire consequences, it went even beyond an exercise in futility to submit the paper, as he would be running the risk of consequences that were far worse than failing a module. Instead, the HC believed that Suria submitted the paper hoping, if not expecting that it would yield a passing mark, and he did so either without having first screened it using Turnitin, or alternatively, hoping that his university would not screen it or take issue with the high similarity index.

As for point (a), the HC considered that Suria had been specifically warned about the serious consequences of plagiarism by his law module professor when he submitted his outline. Thus, Suria could not have failed to appreciate the effect of his act  – that he was passing the work of others as his own – and the gravity of this misconduct when he went ahead and submitted the research paper.

The “true impropriety” of Suria’s conduct arose from his lifting a significant proportion of his paper in its entirety from the internet. The copied passages were thus presented not as quotes, but analytical content. The fact that there was “minor rewording” in some instances was even more troubling. The HC was therefore unable to accept Suria’s explanation that he merely submitted an “incomplete paper” because he was anxious not to miss the deadline.

Given the finding that Suria knew he was passing the work of others as his own when he submitted the research paper, the HC then considered whether Suria submitted the research paper intending to deceive the University that the plagiarised materials were in fact his own work, or he if submitted the research paper with extremely poor insight into the ethical implications of putting forward a paper that included significant portions that were not his work without reflecting this. As there was insufficient material to show that Suria submitted the research paper intending to deceive the University, the HC gave Suria the benefit of doubt and held that it was the latter. Nonetheless, it was clear that Suria lacked insight into the ethical implications of his misconduct.

This lack of insight persisted even until the time of his admission application. Specifically, Suria characterised his misconduct as follows: “[i]nhindsight Ishould have exercised due diligence in the completion of mycourse work by meticulously adhering to the rules set out by the university.” This suggested that Suria’s conclusion, even after all these years, was that he simply needed to follow the rules more carefully next time. This missed the true learning point, which is to see beyond the rules, understand their rationale, and appreciate the gravity of passing the work of others off as his own. Suria’s characterisation of his misconduct appeared to be an attempt to downplay his culpability; or at the very least, it demonstrated his utter lack of insight into the ethical implications of his misconduct. This in turn affected the assessment of Suria’s degree of remorse, his willingness to confront his mistake and his forthrightness in his disclosures.

B.        Suria’s conduct during initial investigations

The HC considered Suria’s conduct during the initial investigations by the University. In his Supplementary Affidavit, Suria stated that when he was confronted by the Head of School regarding the allegation of academic misconduct, he explained that he had been rushing to finish his research paper and did not have sufficient time to complete his referencing. Therefore, he uploaded an incomplete essay. He further stated that he did not have the malicious intention to pass off anyone else’s work as his own and that he “merely had an incomplete paper that was not appropriately referenced”. He also put forth the same reasons before the HC.

The HC found Suria’s conduct during the initial investigations to be unsatisfactory. His repeated characterization of his misconduct as the submission of an incomplete paper due to the lack of time suggested that he either sought to find excuses to downplay his culpability; or had not gained any insight about the ethical implications of his misconduct. This stood in stark contrast with that of the applicant in Re Tay Jie Qi. After Ms Tay Jie Qi was informed by her university that she might have violated the university’s Code of Integrity, she immediately admitted her misconduct, apologized and stated that she would accept any punishment for her misconduct. Instead, Suria’s conduct was similar to that of the applicant in Re Tay Quan Li Leon [2022] SGHC 133, where the applicant sought to downplay his culpability during the initial investigations by lying. Even if Suria had not gone as far as to lie, his unwillingness to confront his mistake openly suggested a lack of remorse, or at the very least, a lack of insight.

C. The nature and extent of Suria’s disclosure in his admission application

The HC first noted that Suria’s Part Call Affidavit had been filed under section 32(3) of the LPA, i.e. a part call to the Bar. If granted, this accords the applicant a limited right of audience to appear on behalf of his law practice before a judge or registrar. In this affidavit, Suria had made no mention of the plagiarism incident. However, the HC noted that there was no explicit requirement for applicants to disclose prior misconduct in their affidavits filed in support of a part call application. As such, the HC disregarded Suria’s failure to disclose the plagiarism incident in his Part Call Affidavit. However, the HC stated that from now on, those who wished to be part called under section 32(3) of the LPA should, at the first opportunity in their part call affidavits, disclose any prior misconduct that may affect their suitability to practice. The failure to do so would be taken into account by the courts in determining the transparency of the applicants’ disclosures when assessing their suitability to be admitted.

Regarding Suria’s disclosures in his subsequent affidavits, the HC held that Suria had not been completely forthright in his disclosures. Although he had disclosed his act of plagiarism for the research paper, he made no mention of the research outline incident and the warning he had received from his Law Module professor. The HC did not accept that he did not recall the issue with the research outline. In any event, what was material was that he had been admonished for “mass-copying” as well as given “repeated warnings about plagiarism”. Such information concerning the lead-up to his act of plagiarism in his research paper would have been relevant for the court and other stakeholders to assess the overall severity of his misconduct. Once he made the disclosure concerning the research paper, he should have disclosed the full context and surrounding circumstances. On any reasonable basis, this would include the matters pertaining to his research outline.

Furthermore, Suria spent a significant portion of his Supplementary Affidavit explaining his health issues and time constraints that resulted in him not having “sufficient time to sufficiently complete [his] referencing”. This appeared to the HC as an attempt to downplay his culpability. The HC noted that if he had time to copy and use others’ work in his paper, he could not be said to have lacked the time to make it clear that he had done just that, by sourcing that work appropriately.

IV. Lessons Learnt

One of the main takeaways from this case is that when assessing whether an applicant is suitable for admission to the Singapore Bar, the court looks also to whether the applicant has appreciated the ethical implications of the misconduct in question. Instead of finding excuses to explain their misconduct, applicants should promptly own up to their mistakes and reflect on why their actions were wrong.

The HC also clarified that those who wish to be part-called to the Singapore Bar in the future should disclose any prior misconduct that may affect their suitability to practice at the first opportunity in their part-call affidavits. A failure to do so will be taken into consideration to determine the transparency of an applicant’s disclosure when assessing his or her suitability to be admitted.

Written by: Adele Ling Yan Ying, 2nd-year LLB student, Singapore Management University Yong Pung How School of Law.
Edited by: Ong Ee Ing, Senior Lecturer, Singapore Management University Yong Pung How School of Law.

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