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Media Release: Interim Report of the Ethics and Professional Standards Committee

Interim Report of the Ethics and Professional Standards Committee

             At the Opening of the Legal Year 2024 (OLY 2024), The Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon announced the acceptance of the interim recommendations of the Ethics and Professional Standards Committee (the Committee) and that the Committee’s Interim Report would be published.

2          Chief Justice Menon highlighted that while the Committee’s work suggested that the ethical health of the profession is reasonably good, the ethical formation of young lawyers must be strengthened through a three-pronged approach:

a. First, a sound grounding in values and the ethos of the profession is necessary. The first four recommendations in the Committee’s Interim Report (see Annex B) seek to distil the profession’s core values, provide vision and narrative, and build habits and practices premised on these aspirational standards, which will sustain long-term behavioural change.

b. Second, ethics education must be a focus of continuous learning, beginning in law school, continuing through Part A and Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations, and on through continuing professional education, certification programmes and specialist accreditation schemes. Recommendations 5 to 10 (see Annex B) deal with this component. In particular, ethics education must be a mandatory component of continuing professional education.

c. Third, effective mentoring must start from the time young lawyers train with their supervising solicitors, and be layered and reinforced throughout a lawyer’s career. Recommendations 11 to 13 (see Annex B) lay the groundwork for this. Amongst the recommendations is a new Ethics Line managed by the Law Society of Singapore (Law Society), with support from senior members of the profession, to provide less formal but more responsive guidance on the ethical issues that lawyers may encounter in practice. The Senior Counsel Forum has committed to lending their support to the Ethics Line.

3          Mentoring cannot be complete if not supported within healthy sustainable workplaces, where lawyers can be guided and empowered to pursue their calling with integrity, passion and purpose. Ethical standards thrive where practices conducive to such standards are nourished, and systemic ethical resilience is cultivated in workplaces where high professional standards are sustainably pursued. With the support of the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) and PwC Singapore, the Committee conducted a survey of young lawyers with between two to 10 years of post-qualification experience, from 14 August 2023 to 1 September 2023 (Survey). The Survey was completed by 527 respondents, and indicated that there is a real need and desire on the part of young lawyers for structured mentoring, better training and ethical formation and more sustainable careers. Law firms must recognise these changing expectations and cultivate environments conducive to the retention of talent and the maintenance of high professional standards. The Committee will study these issues with a view to further recommendations in its Final Report.

4          To view the Interim Report of the Committee, please visit https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/docs/default-source/news-docs/interim-report-of-the-ethics-and-professional-standards-committee-(final).pdf. The background on the formation of the Committee and its work as well as an executive summary of the Interim Report are set out below in Annex A and Annex B respectively. The accompanying infographic on the summary is separately enclosed as Annex C. Chief Justice Menon’s OLY 2024 speech, specifically paragraphs 39 to 45 relating to ethics and professional standards and nurturing the next generation of the profession, and the infographic that provides a snapshot of the speech, are separately enclosed as Annex D and Annex E respectively.

Issued by: SG Courts

About SG Courts

The Singapore Courts – comprising the Supreme Court, State Courts and Family Justice Courts – is one of the three constitutional pillars of government in Singapore. Known collectively as SG Courts, we are integrated and coordinated to serve as one judiciary. As an organ of state, the judiciary’s function is to independently administer justice. Headed by the Chief Justice, we are a forward-looking, innovative and trusted judiciary. Built on judicial professionalism and transparency, we maintain the highest standards of integrity in safeguarding our community. We pledge to ensure equal and continuous access to justice, and we are committed to deliver justice that is fair and impartial.

Annex A - Background on the formation of the Committee and its work

1. The formation of the Committee was announced by Chief Justice Menon during the Opening of the Legal Year 2023. The Committee was tasked to develop a strategy to reaffirm the moral centre and values of the legal profession, and to enable lawyers and those who aspire to a career in the law to understand the legal profession as a calling to be answered with honesty, integrity and dedication.

2. Over the course of 2023, the Committee conducted:

a. Focus groups and other discussions with multiple stakeholders and members of the legal community. These included the Law Society, the SAL, the Singapore Institute of Legal Education (SILE), the local law schools, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority of the Ministry of Law, managing directors of boutique law practices, lawyers from small law practices, transactional lawyers, general counsel, young lawyers and law students.

b. An analysis of the trajectory of complaints that had been made to the Law Society against advocates and solicitors between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2020 and a survey of disciplinary cases involving advocates and solicitors between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2023.

c. With the support of SAL and PwC Singapore, a survey of young lawyers with between two and 10 years of post-qualification experience (Young Lawyers’ Survey) and a further series of related focus groups. A summary of the survey results can be found at https://www.sal.org.sg/ethics-professional-standards.

3. The statistical analysis of disciplinary cases indicated that overall, ethical and professional standards within the profession were resilient. However, the same analysis highlighted weaknesses within the profession that should be addressed. Further, findings from the Young Lawyers’ Survey and related focus group discussions reflected concerns that require deeper study and review. Young lawyers’ discontent with training, mentoring and the workplace environment of traditional law firms might reflect a disjunct in generational mindsets and expectations. Small law firms and sole practitioners, in which the majority of practitioners sanctioned after disciplinary proceedings practised, might be challenged by the changing paradigms of business, technology and the economy. The Committee concluded that further discussion with stakeholders would be required in order to secure a robust long-term landscape, in which high ethical and professional standards are upheld in workplaces where lawyers are guided and empowered to pursue their calling with integrity, passion and purpose.

4. In the meantime, and as foundational stones, the Committee’s view is that it is important to build mindshare throughout the profession, to instil consistent and pervasive learning, and to provide reinforcing layers of mentoring. In recognition that all meaningful change requires thoughtful application over time, the Committee will start work on the interim recommendations set out in the Interim Report and summarised below, with a view to finetuning the approach in the Final Report. The Committee intends for recommendations relating to the following to be areas of focus in the Final Report: (a) support within the legal fraternity for individual lawyers showing early signs of distress; (b) support for sole practitioners and small law firms; and more generally, (c) the promotion of law firms as sustainable workplaces.

Annex B - Executive summary of the Interim Report

A. Rationale

1. Ethical lawyers are integral to society’s access to justice. It is through high professional standards in multiple legal fields that Singapore enjoys its status as a trusted global node and individuals, businesses, social enterprises and government experience the daily benefits of the rule of law.

2. This source of common good is, at this time, under unique global and local pressure. While a statistical analysis of disciplinary cases indicates that overall, ethical and professional standards within the profession are resilient, the same analysis highlights weaknesses within the profession that should be addressed. Further, findings from the SAL Young Lawyers’ Survey and related focus group discussions reflect concerns that require deeper study and review. Young lawyers’ discontent with training, mentoring and the workplace environment of traditional law firms may reflect a disjunct in generational mindsets and expectations. Small law firms and sole practitioners, in which the majority of practitioners who were sanctioned after disciplinary proceedings practise, may be challenged by the changing paradigms of business, technology and the economy. Further discussion with stakeholders is required in order to secure a robust long-term landscape, in which high ethical and professional standards are upheld in workplaces where lawyers are guided and empowered to pursue their calling with integrity, passion and purpose.

3. In the meantime, and as foundational stones, the Committee thinks it important to build mindshare throughout the profession, to instil consistent and pervasive learning, and to provide reinforcing layers of mentoring. In recognition that all meaningful change requires thoughtful application over time, the Committee proposes to start work on the interim recommendations set out in the Interim Report, with a view to finetuning the approach in a Final Report which will follow in due course.

B. List of Interim Recommendations

4. Recommendations relating to Ethos:

a. Recommendation 1: To distil core values of the legal profession that will be clearly communicated and explained to members of the profession, aspiring entrants and the public. The core values will reiterate the importance of the calling to serve, and their communication will also serve to (i) attract the correct candidates to the profession; (ii) unify the profession and sustain its sense of call; and (iii) educate the public at large, so that they can appreciate the premise from which lawyers act, as the respect of society for the law as an institution is central to its legitimacy.

b. Recommendation 2: To build a shared vision for the legal profession as a community, the following are proposed: (i) a pledge for university students (to be implemented from academic year 2024/2025); (ii) a revised declaration for newly admitted advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court (to be implemented beginning in Mass Call 2024); and (iii) a creed for all members of the legal profession. This will serve to explain the legal profession’s core values in a more detailed way and to build consensus on and deepen understanding of these values.

c. Recommendation 3: To entrench values as narratives through community rituals. As a start, the Mass Call experience should be enhanced to affirm the importance of ethics and professional standards at the outset of one’s career, with enhancements implemented from Mass Call 2024. The start of and graduation from university, and the occasion of the annual Opening of the Legal Year, could be other opportunities to emphasise shared values. Community rituals provide visual and vivid representations of values and help to build up a sense of fraternity and commonality within the profession.

d. Recommendation 4: To build habits and practices premised on aspirational standards, codes and reference guides relating to ethics and professional standards should be promulgated for specific practice areas. As a start, (i) the Code of Practice for the Conduct of Criminal Proceedings by the Prosecution and the Defence and (ii) the etiquette guide titled A Civil Practice – Good Counsel for Learned Friends (SAL Academy Publishing, 2011) (A Civil Practice) should be updated; and (iii) a new Ethical Best Practices in Dispute Resolution Guide is proposed. The building of habits and practices premised on these aspirational standards will sustain long-term behavioural change.

5. In implementing these recommendations relating to Ethos, care must be taken to inspire heart and mind, because these proposals are targeted at behavioural change in individuals. They seek to motivate individuals within a fraternity of like-minded professionals, and to imbue the community with the intuition, ambition and reflexes that support and reinforce the values of the profession. 

6. Recommendations relating to Learning:

a. Recommendation 5: To inculcate in law students from local universities the unique ethical duties and obligations incumbent upon members of the legal profession, by the following: (i) the education of values, which is to be viewed as a continuous journey; (ii) the inclusion, in law schools’ curriculum, of content on core ethical duties of lawyers, contextualised in substantive courses; and (iii) the use of internships as an opportunity to expose law students to ethical issues in legal practice.

b. Recommendation 6: To inculcate the same values in the ethical consciousness of law graduates of universities outside Singapore, the ethics-related content from the law schools should be made available to candidates of Part A of the Singapore Bar Examinations (Part A) through an online module to be completed as a requirement for Part A qualification.

c. Recommendation 7: To ensure that each stage of the ethics education continuum builds on the previous stages, there should be a review of the content relating to ethics and professional standards taught as part of the preparatory course leading to Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations.

d. Recommendation 8: To promote the continuous instillation of values throughout one’s professional life, ethics and professional standards should be a mandatory component of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) scheme, applicable to lawyers across all seniorities (with effect from CPD Year 2025).

e. Recommendation 9: To contextualise ethical issues faced in the various practice areas, ethics-related content should be incorporated into structured training and specialist programmes.

f. Recommendation 10: To make resources on ethics and professional standards more accessible and to use new technologies, including generative artificial intelligence, to facilitate self-education.

7. Time is required to build up good content, and the implementation of these various proposals will be phased accordingly. Platforms allowing easy access to materials relating to ethics and professional standards, which leverage on developing technologies, will have to be built over time.

8. Recommendations relating to Mentoring:

a. Recommendation 11: To assist supervising solicitors in ensuring that their trainees acquire the required values, competencies and skills, a protocol should be introduced and provided to all supervising solicitors.

b. Recommendation 12: To promote a culture of lifelong and multi-layered mentoring, specialist communities of practice should be created and developed.

c. Recommendation 13: To establish a new Ethics Line for lawyers to receive external guidance and mentorship on ethical issues, in a manner that is less formal than a request to the Advisory Committee of the Professional Conduct Council, and which is able to provide more immediate advice.

9. Seasoned lawyers have a duty to teach and pass on the art and craft of high-quality professional standards, and law firms have a responsibility to nurture environments conducive to such standards. The Committee, in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, will consider how best these recommendations can be implemented to build a constructive environment that facilitates these ideals.

C. The Work Ahead

10. These recommendations recognise that the ethical lawyer is a product of his or her community, and any community is only as robust as the individuals within. The implementation of these interim recommendations will set the foundation for the Committee’s further recommendations in the Final Report, which will look more deeply into the application of the ethos, learning and mentoring approaches. The Committee intends for recommendations relating to the following to be areas of focus in the Final Report: (a) support within the legal fraternity for individual lawyers showing early signs of distress; (b) support for sole practitioners and small law firms; and more generally, (c) the promotion of law firms as sustainable workplaces. The Committee recognises that ethical standards thrive where practices conducive to such standards are nourished, and systemic ethical resilience is cultivated in workplaces where high professional standards are sustainably pursued.

2024/02/21

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