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Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon: Welcome Address delivered at the Judicial Executive Programme

JUDICIAL EXECUTIVE PROGRAMME – WELCOME ADDRESS

“Securing Trust: The Project of Judicial Leadership”

 

The Honourable Minister for Home Affairs and Law, Mr K Shanmugam
Ms Koong Pai Ching, Deputy Director-General of the Technical Cooperation Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore (or “MFA”)
Fellow Judges
Participants in the Judicial Executive Programme (or “JEP”), including the Honourable Chief Justice of Papua New Guinea, Sir Gibuma Gibbs Salika
Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen

1. Good morning, and a warm welcome to the opening of the Court Week of the inaugural JEP. This project has been a couple of years in the making and I am delighted to finally welcome you today. In 2020, the Singapore Judicial College (or “SJC”) and the Singapore Management University (or “SMU”) Yong Pung How School of Law received their first cohort of candidates for the jointly offered Master of Laws in Judicial Studies programme (or “LLM (JS)”), the first course of its kind in our region. The program was conceived out of our shared belief that there was a need for an advanced training course designed for those aspiring to a judicial career. However, it soon became apparent to us that there was also a place for a premier programme curated specifically for current and aspiring judicial leaders. This would be focused on judicial leadership and would complement the nine-month LLM (JS) as well as the SJC’s biennial week-long Leadership in Court Governance programme offered under the Singapore Cooperation Programme of the MFA. This led us to conceptualise and develop the JEP and today, two years after the pandemic disrupted our initial plans to host this programme, I am delighted that we can now launch the JEP. I am particularly pleased that the first edition of the JEP has attracted senior judges and court administrators from nine countries from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean: Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Mongolia, Nauru, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Rwanda. The JEP cohort also includes our LLM (JS) candidates, who are attending the JEP as part of their Masters curriculum.

2. Because the JEP is a judicial leadership programme, I propose to speak on that subject in my welcome remarks. Let me outline my main thesis today in this way. The central goal of judicial leadership in our times must be to secure trust in our justice systems. To achieve that, we will have to transform our judiciaries from bodies of adjudicators into institutions that excel in the administration of justice. This will require us to consider three principal areas: advancing access to justice, enhancing service excellence, and deepening international judicial cooperation. Further, all members of our judiciaries, judges and court administrators alike, must strive to become judicial leaders in their own right. We must therefore entrench a culture of leadership in our institutions. That, in summary, is my thesis today, and I will develop it in three main parts.

(a) First, I will develop the central goal and mission of judicial leadership that I have just outlined.

(b) Second, I will unpack the project of judicial leadership by discussing the three areas that we should focus on: namely, access to justice, service excellence, and judicial cooperation.

(c) Finally, I will elaborate on how we can actualise judicial leadership throughout our judiciaries, by discussing the values that we should inculcate in our people, and by outlining some practical strategies that we can implement to foster a culture of leadership within our institutions.

I. The goal and mission of judicial leadership

3. To understand the goal of judicial leadership, we should first recall the role and fundamental aspiration of our judiciaries, which, in essence, is to secure the authoritative and peaceful resolution of disputes in our communities. But, this can only be achieved if there is trust in our justice systems. If our societies were to lose trust in our courts, the legitimacy of our decisions would fall away, severely eroding our ability to fulfil our role of resolving disputes. In that light, I suggest that the overarching aspiration for our courts must be to sustain and strengthen trust in our justice systems. And this yields the conclusion that the central goal of judicial leadership must be to inspire trust in our justice systems.

4. Yet the reality that confronts us is that over the last few years, trust in institutions around the world has been falling rapidly. Indeed, the recently released 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that distrust is now “society’s default emotion”: nearly six in ten people tend to adopt a default attitude of distrust towards people and information.[1] The collapse of trust can be traced to several sources, such as the increase in economic and political polarisation, and the proliferation of online falsehoods and misinformation. It does not fall within our remit as judges directly to address many of these issues. But besides these factors, a fundamental source of the collapse in trust has been the failure of public institutions to deliver on their missions. And insofar as this implicates our courts, it plainly falls to us as judicial leaders to tackle this problem.

5. The starting point in that endeavour must be to clearly identify the mission of our courts. Traditionally, the judicial role has been understood largely, if not exclusively, in terms of adjudication – meaning, a process in which judges find the facts, apply the law, and determine the rights of parties. This conception of our function lies behind many features of our justice systems. But I suggest that we need to look beyond this process-based view of our role. After all, adjudication is but one means by which our true desired outcome, which is the fair and efficient administration of justice, can be realised.[2] I propose that we see our mission in terms of that outcome, and strive to progress from being bodies of adjudicators to becoming institutions that excel in the administration of justice, and as leaders, our key role must be to shepherd this transformation of our judiciaries. This, I suggest, is the most important contribution that we can make to our goal of securing trust in our justice systems.

6. Let me elaborate on what I mean by this transformation. A body of adjudicators is a group of individual judges, each focused only on his or her own docket of cases. By contrast, an institution that excels in the administration of justice is an integrated system of dispute resolvers and support staff with three key elements. First, the entire system has an unrelenting focus on enhancing access to justice and securing fairness. Second, the system includes not only adjudicators, but an excellent supporting infrastructure covering a suite of areas such as communications, policy formulation, innovation, knowledge management and training, all geared towards achieving the highest standards of effective, efficient and appropriate dispute resolution conducted within an overarching emphasis on ethics and integrity. And third, beyond black-letter law and basic competencies, the system must be designed to equip judges and court administrators with the skills and inculcate in them the resolve to continually engage in systemic enhancement and reform. The task of judicial leadership must be to guide our courts to become institutions with these three features.

7. But, we might ask, why is it imperative for us to take on this task of driving the reform of our judiciaries? I suggest three compelling reasons.[3] First, we are the custodians of our justice systems and the responsibility for reimagining and remoulding those systems must fall squarely on us. Second, we are the principal operators of our justice systems. We are often in the best position to identify pain points and devise possible solutions, not only because we are familiar with how our systems work, but also because we are in close contact with the users of those systems and can readily receive feedback on the state of our existing processes and what we can do to improve them. Finally, it is in our interest to take an active role in the refining and reshaping of our judiciaries, because this will have a direct and major impact on our work and our mission. We therefore have the biggest stake in realising the successful reform of our justice systems.

II. Unpacking the project of judicial leadership: three focus areas

8. How then should we embark on the project of transforming our justice systems to fulfil this vision? That brings me to the second part of my address. I propose to unpack the project of judicial leadership, by identifying three interrelated areas that call for special attention.

9. The first of these is access to justice. This must be a fundamental focus of judicial leadership, because nothing is more corrosive to public trust in our justice systems than the perception that those systems are the preserve of a privileged few, or that justice is priced out of the reach of those who need it the most. Indeed, the task of enhancing access to justice is especially pressing in the prevailing global context of rising inflation and sharpening inequality. This is fuelling an increase in the number of self-represented litigants who navigate our justice systems, while harbouring the impression that real justice is the preserve of the privileged minority able to afford expensive legal representation.

10. But the problem of access to justice extends beyond this. It is perhaps best understood as a “justice gap” with three elements: a physical gap, a resource gap and a literacy gap.[4] Although our judiciaries cannot eliminate these gaps working alone because they stem from broader socio-economic issues, we can reduce them substantially, especially by harnessing technology. Let me develop this point by discussing each gap in turn.

(a) The physical gap refers to the physical distance between our justice systems and litigants, which we can reduce in several ways. Even in a country as small as mine, this offers a genuine opportunity. Let me give you some examples. Our Family Justice Courts (or “FJC”) are implementing an initiative to bring filing services for certain court applications to the community, by integrating those services into centralised public service hubs in our heartlands. Second, technology enables us to bring court services into the very homes of our users. Apart from remote hearings by video-conferencing, which has become the default mode of hearings in Singapore for a wide range of civil and criminal proceedings, we have launched asynchronous hearings for certain civil matters in our State Courts. These innovations can significantly alleviate the physical burden of reaching our justice systems. I am pleased to note that the JEP participants will hear more about such initiatives introduced by our FJC and State Courts later today. And if this can benefit a country like Singapore, imagine the potential benefits for much larger jurisdictions.

(b) Next, I turn to the resource gap, which relates to the financial cost of navigating our justice systems. Again, technology can play a vital role in narrowing this gap. For example, our courts have collaborated with the Singapore Academy of Law to develop a motor accident claims simulator that is publicly available and can be used without charge by parties involved in a road accident to assess their potential liabilities. The assessment is based on inputs like the relative positions of the vehicles involved and the injuries that were sustained. The tool can help users come to a better informed decision as to whether to pursue legal proceedings, without needing to expend the time and money that would be necessary to obtain legal advice. We are also exploring other online tools to help reduce the cost of dispute resolution, such as simulators and predictive tools for other smaller value claims that are straightforward in nature, and forms that litigants can populate on their own, which the system can use to generate usable court documents. These are techniques that all courts will have to consider as they grapple with the reality that people increasingly represent themselves to overcome the resource gap and, if they are doing that, then our systems need to be refined to make the process easier to the extent it is possible to do so.

(c) The third gap is the literacy gap, which stems from a lack of legal literacy. Its consequences can be very grave because often, an aggrieved party may not even be aware that her legal rights have been breached. Our judiciaries can address this gap in three main ways. First, by refining our procedures and practices to strip away obscure and opaque elements, so that litigants will find them user-friendly and comprehensible. Second, we can strive to make relevant information available to self-represented litigants using a range of formats, including videos that we could post on our websites. And third, we can equip our judges and court administrators with the skills to engage appropriately with self-represented litigants and to guide them towards the efficient resolution of cases.

11. It will only be possible to secure real access to justice by drawing together the efforts of the Government in providing public legal aid, the contributions of the private Bar in providing pro bono services, and the work of the Judiciary in proactively recognising and bringing down the barriers that stand in the way of self-represented litigants. These barriers are widespread and embedded within our systems and processes because these were designed with lawyers and judges rather than lay users in mind, and unless we consciously direct our attention to this area, it will remain a persistent obstacle to accessing justice.

12. This leads me to the second focus area for judicial leadership, which is service excellence. This is closely linked to access to justice, and again, will be crucial to our endeavour to secure trust in our justice systems. Traditionally, judiciaries have been cloistered professions that devoted themselves purely or primarily to adjudication. But if we look beyond this narrow view of our adjudicative role and understand our function in terms of the outcome that we seek to achieve, then we should see our work of delivering justice in terms of a service that we deliver to our users. And this should lead us to reimagine and remould our people, policies and processes with the overarching goal of serving our users. This approach will be central to securing trust in our judiciaries because ultimately, our societies will accept our justice systems as legitimate if they sense that those systems are designed to meet their needs, rather than to serve our convenience.

13. The third focus area that merits attention is international judicial cooperation. This can help us in the first two aspects of enhancing access to justice and achieving service excellence, and thus further advance our efforts to promote trust in our judiciaries. First, judicial collaboration opens the door to a rich source of ideas and experiences from our counterparts that can inspire and direct our own efforts to reform our justice systems. One example of such co-operation, which is particularly relevant to access to justice and service excellence, is the International Judicial Dispute Resolution Network (or “JDRN”), which held its first meeting in May this year. This is a network of like-minded courts convened by the Singapore judiciary. These courts aim to promote the judicial dispute resolution (or “JDR”) process, which strives for the early, cost-effective and amicable resolution of court disputes, through active case management and alternative dispute resolution (or “ADR”) modalities like mediation and neutral evaluation. Among other things, the JDRN is working on a set of best practices that may be adopted by jurisdictions keen to embed the JDR process into their legal systems.

14. Another area in which international judicial collaboration is valuable is the resolution of transnational disputes, which have become increasingly common in our globalised age. These disputes raise many knotty issues, such as parallel proceedings in different jurisdictions and the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments and orders. These issues cannot ultimately be addressed by any single jurisdiction on its own. Judicial collaboration will play a vital function in this setting. The Judicial Insolvency Network and the International Hague Network of Judges are two platforms that promote cross-border judicial cooperation in insolvency law and family law respectively, and it is apt that the JEP cohort will learn about these networks, along with other regional ones such as the ASEAN Law Association and the Council of ASEAN Chief Justices later this week.

III. Fostering judicial leadership: values and strategies

15. But all this begs the question of who the project of judicial leadership should be directed to. The task of securing trust in our justice systems is a massive undertaking, for which we must harness the efforts of our entire judiciaries. I suggest it would be insufficient for our people to be mere servants of a cause: instead, every member of our courts must be encouraged to become a judicial leader in her or his own right, if we are to accomplish our mission. We must therefore strive to foster a culture of leadership throughout our judiciaries. Let me outline some thoughts on how we might do this, by discussing the values that we should strive to inculcate in our judges and court administrators, and some practical strategies that we could adopt.

A. Inculcating leadership values

16. I start with three leadership values that we should seek to inculcate.[5] The first of these is vision. This is often equated with the ability to conceive bold or sweeping schemes that revolutionise a particular area or subject. But I suggest that at its core, vision in this context simply means being able to step back from one’s docket or portfolio, to take a system-wide view of judicial processes and operations. Such an approach may yield simple or straightforward ideas; yet these are often the most effective in resolving or ameliorating problems. Again, let me illustrate this with an example: “Zoom Rooms” were established by our FJC in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. At that time, we had just started conducting remote hearings by videoconferencing, and there was a serious risk that this would pose a different type of barrier for self-represented litigants who did not have the skills or resources to access or use such technology. This was an especially pressing issue in family cases since many parties in such proceedings are self-represented. The FJC therefore established Zoom Rooms within the court premises, which litigants could use to attend hearings remotely. There they would have the necessary equipment and even a guide to help them. This proved to be a huge success: at least 3 in 10 of FJC users used these facilities during a period when our courts were hearing only the most essential cases in person.

17. The second value that I wish to highlight is initiative, which is the ability to act and to get others to act. In our context, this can be defined more specifically as the ability to recognise problems, devise solutions, and marshal the relevant people and resources to effect a responsive change. Indeed, this is the very crux of leadership, which is better understood as a propensity for action rather than as a burden of a managerial position or office. I will return to this point shortly.

18. The third and possibly most vital leadership value is courage. It has been said that the legal profession is especially resistant to change. To drive reform to our justice systems, we will need courage not just to take leaps of faith in departing from settled practices, but also to stay the course in the face of indifference or even resistance. This was borne out by our recent experience in introducing a new set of bold and innovative civil procedural rules, which came into effect in April this year. Participants in the JEP will hear more about these rules tomorrow, but in essence, they effected major changes to how we approach many aspects of civil litigation such as the use of ADR, case management, disclosure of documents, pre-trial applications, and expert evidence. These new rules were judge-driven, and as with all changes, there was, quite expectedly, some initial resistance from stakeholders. However, we held our ground on most issues and the bulk of our proposals ultimately came to fruition. That took courage, and such fortitude is simply essential to effective judicial leadership.

B. Fostering a culture of leadership

19. If these are the values that exemplify a culture of judicial leadership, what can we do to promote such a culture across our judiciaries? Let me outline three strategies.[6]

20. First, judges and senior court administrators should lead from the front by providing strategic direction on all aspects of court reform and operations. For example, I have formed a cross-court team of senior judges and court administrators to holistically explore how the Singapore Judiciary may advance access to justice. I also work closely with our Chief Executive and our Chief Communications Officer on our public communications and outreach strategies, which are critical to building trust. And the SJC, the linchpin of our judicial education efforts, is overseen by a Board of Governors that includes a number of our judges, while the SJC’s operations are presently being led by a District Judge who serves as its Executive Director. I mention these examples to underscore my firm belief that judicial leaders must set the tone for and drive the reform and successful operation of our justice systems.

21. Second, we must encourage leadership at all levels and across all roles in our judiciaries. As I suggested earlier, leadership must be seen not as an incident of management, but rather as a propensity for action that all members of our courts should be encouraged to develop. This necessarily means that judges in the junior judiciary must be given the space and opportunity to identify and develop their own ideas about our strategic objectives and to formulate initiatives to advance those goals. In Singapore, this is done primarily in the form of annual workplans that play a key role in driving judicial reforms. These workplans are formulated by the judges who manage our courts with the assistance of colleagues at various levels of the judiciary.

22. And apart from judges, our court administrators too must be encouraged to blossom as judicial leaders. They have an invaluable role to play in advancing access to justice and service excellence – and indeed, many of our best innovations have come from our able corps of case management officers. For example, just a few weeks ago, we launched a one-stop Service Hub in our Supreme Court to consolidate the touchpoints for services commonly used by court users into a single location. This was a bottom-up initiative that grew out of ideas and feedback from our court administrators. This exemplifies the significant contribution that court administrators can make to our justice systems if they are encouraged and given the space to lead. In this spirit, we held an inaugural Conference of Court Administrators last year, to stimulate innovation and a drive for professionalism among our court administrators. I am pleased that the two leadership roundtables later today will feature court administrators; and indeed, the second of these will focus on leadership in court administration.

23. The third strategy to foster a leadership culture is to equip our people with the relevant skills and capabilities to lead. As I mentioned earlier, the SJC spearheads our efforts on this front. To be effective leaders, we require not just core leadership skills but also multidisciplinary knowledge of various fields, especially technology, to empower us to drive the digital transformation of our justice systems. No less important will be soft skills such as societal awareness and the ability to forge strong relations with local as well as international partners and stakeholders. With a bold vision to be a university for judges, our SJC strives to go beyond delivering competency-based training to equipping judicial leaders so that they can achieve their fullest potential and in doing so, drive our judiciary forward.

24. Above all, our leaders must have an enduring commitment to the goal and mission that I outlined at the start of this address. Our people must yearn to sustain trust in our judiciaries, by achieving excellence in the administration of justice. Judicial education should therefore seek to inculcate this mindset in our judges and case administrators.

IV. Conclusion

25. The project of judicial leadership is a complex and mammoth enterprise. But it is an immensely worthwhile endeavour, because it sustains the bedrock of trust that lies at the foundation of our justice systems. The JEP, with its unique pedagogical structure of academic modules, judicial roundtables and plenaries, learning journeys and judicial attachments, will offer participants an invaluable opportunity to explore cutting-edge ideas and practices of judicial leadership and to build bonds with current and future court leaders from other jurisdictions.

26. Let me close by thanking everyone who has contributed to this inaugural edition of the JEP. I would like specifically to acknowledge the efforts of MFA’s Technical Cooperation Directorate, which made the attendance of some of the JEP participants possible; the SMU and in particular, the faculty from the SMU Yong Pung How School of Law and the SMU Law Academy that delivered the curriculum for the University Week of the JEP; and finally, the SJC, for stepping up to the challenge that I presented to them to develop a quality leadership programme for judges. Thank you all very much, and I look forward to my conversation with the JEP participants later this week.



  • *I am deeply grateful to my colleagues, District Judge Paul Quan, Executive Director of the Singapore Judicial College, and Assistant Registrars Huang Jiahui and Tan Ee Kuan, for all their assistance in the research for and preparation of this address.
[1]     See 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer: The Trust 10:

https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2022-01/Trust%2022_Top10.pdf

[2]     Sundaresh Menon CJ, “The JDRN: Remoulding the Justice System”, Opening Address at the Inaugural Meeting of the International Judicial Dispute Resolution Network (18 May 2022), paras 4–5.

[3]     Sundaresh Menon CJ, “Judicial Leadership: From Adjudication to the Administration of Justice”, Speech to the Judiciary of the Republic of Rwanda (14 March 2022) (“Judicial Leadership”), paras 5–8.

[4]     Sundaresh Menon CJ, “Technology and the Changing Face of Justice”, Negotiation and Conflict Management Group ADR Conference 2019 (14 November 2019), at paras 11–27.

[5]     Judicial Leadership, paras 11–18.

[6]     Judicial Leadership, paras 20–30.

2022/11/21

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