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Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon: Opening Address at the Singapore Academy of Law Annual Lecture 2022

The Right Honourable Richard Wagner PC, Chief Justice of Canada

Your Excellency Mr Jean-Dominique Ieraci, High Commissioner of Canada to Singapore

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

1.   Good evening, and a very warm welcome to the 27th Singapore Academy of Law Annual Lecture. After a period of almost three years in which the lecture could not be held, I am delighted that we are finally able to gather here today in person. It is my privilege to welcome the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of Canada, as our guest of honour who will deliver this year’s lecture. Much has happened in the world since the last time we held the Annual Lecture in 2019, and it is fitting that Chief Justice Wagner will be addressing us this evening on some of these recent developments, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of artificial intelligence, and what they mean for judiciaries and for justice systems.

2.   Chief Justice Wagner was born and raised in Montreal, and earned his Bachelor of Social Science and Licentiate in Laws at the University of Ottawa. He was called to the Quebec Bar in 1980, and from then until 2004, he practised as a litigator specialising in areas such as commercial law, professional liability, and class action lawsuits. He was appointed a judge of the Superior Court of Quebec in 2004, and was elevated to the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2011. In 2012, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada and in 2017, he was named the Chief Justice of Canada. For six months in 2021, during the vacancy of the office of Governor General of Canada, Chief Justice Wagner served concurrently as the administrator of the Government of Canada, in effect as the Acting Head of State.

3.   Chief Justice Wagner has worked tirelessly to improve public understanding in Canada of the justice system. At his direction, the Supreme Court of Canada now publishes plain-language summaries of decisions on its website as well as an annual report, and for the first time in its history, it has sat outside Ottawa to hear cases. Chief Justice Wagner is also deeply committed to upholding judicial independence. In 2019, he signed an Accord with the Minister of Justice, which recognised the administrative independence of the Supreme Court of Canada from the Department of Justice. Earlier this year, he signed two Memoranda of Understanding with the Minister of Justice to enshrine the judiciary’s independence in its governance and in the training and education of judges.

4.   It is this principle of judicial independence that forms the topic of Chief Justice Wagner’s lecture this evening. This is a central and essential tenet of the rule of law. It is therefore no surprise that the key pillars of judicial independence are recognisable across diverse forms of constitutional government around the world.

5.   In Singapore, as in Canada, this independence is defended by strong institutional safeguards. First, our judiciary is administratively independent. The Chief Executive of the Office of the Chief Justice and the Registrars of each of our courts, who are responsible for the administration of the judiciary, are appointed either by or at the initiative of the Chief Justice. Through the framework of block budgeting, the judiciary also decides for itself how best to allocate its budget.

6.   Second, there are a series of protections to safeguard the independence of our judicial officers. The Constitution guarantees the security of tenure and remuneration of the Judges of the Supreme Court.[1]  And to ensure that we appoint competent, impartial judges in the first place, the Constitution requires the Prime Minister to consult the Chief Justice on the appointment of Supreme Court Judges before tendering his advice to the President, who acts in her own discretion in making judicial appointments.[2]  The longstanding practice in Singapore is for the Chief Justice to nominate the candidates for these appointments for consideration by the Executive. As for the junior judiciary, the establishment of the Judicial Service Commission at the start of this year placed on a constitutional footing the institutional separation of the legal and judicial branches. These had previously been under the supervision of separate legal and judicial personnel boards within the previously unified Legal Service Commission. The appointment, deployment and removal of lower court judges are now subject to the exclusive control of the Judicial Service Commission, which is headed by the Chief Justice.[3]

7.   These institutional safeguards collectively play a vital role in helping to prevent the improper influence of judges acting in their judicial capacity. But it is equally important to appreciate the corollary of judicial independence, which is that judges must therefore take responsibility for ensuring their own proper conduct on the bench. As my predecessor Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong put it, “all the protective walls in the world would not be sufficient” to sustain judicial independence if the judges themselves do not “believe in and maintain the integrity that the judicial office requires of him or her”.[4]
8.   I suggest that this can be distilled into two important judicial values. The first is judicial fortitude. By this I mean the inner strength not to be adversely affected by the stresses or pressures that come with the job, by our own implicit biases, by pressure, complaints and criticism from the parties, the media and the public, or even by the appeals process. The second and complementary value is judicial modesty. This sense of modesty is grounded not in fear or diffidence, but in humility and respect: because while judicial power must be exercised wherever appropriate, the scope of judicial intervention is not limitless. Judicial power too has legal limits. This requires judges to have a consciousness of their proper role under a Constitution that is underpinned by the principle of the separation of powers. If judges do not embody these values of modesty and fortitude, then we no longer live up to our oath of office, and this too would undermine public trust and confidence in the judiciary, and pose as great a threat to judicial independence as an assault on the institutional safeguards.

9.   It is therefore imperative for all of us in the justice system to have a clear understanding of what judicial independence means and to be committed to defending it – and this includes an understanding of what it requires of judges themselves. Chief Justice Wagner is poised to shed light on each of these matters today, and his lecture will be relevant to everyone who is concerned about justice and the rule of law, regardless of the jurisdiction they hail from. I am confident that lawyers and judges in Singapore will find resonance in the views that Chief Justice Wagner will express on judicial independence today and that we will all leave with many valuable points for learning and reflection. 

10.   On behalf of the Academy, I once again express my gratitude to the Chief Justice for accepting our invitation. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in warmly welcoming Chief Justice Wagner to deliver his lecture.

[1]     Art 98(1A) and (8) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (2020 Rev Ed) (“the Constitution”).

[2]     Art 95(1) read with Art 95(6) of the Constitution.

[3]     Art 111F of the Constitution.

[4]     Chan Sek Keong, “Securing and Maintaining the Independence of the Court in Judicial Proceedings” (2010) 22 SAcLJ 229 at para 6.

Topics: speech, speeches


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