The Singapore Judiciary System consists of two tiers, the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts. Located at 1 Havelock Square, the Subordinate Courts comprise district and magistrate courts and hear both civil and criminal cases that do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Over 95% of all civil, criminal, family and juvenile cases in Singapore are heard in the Subordinate Courts.
The British introduced the judiciary and court system, based on English Common Law, to Singapore when the latter became part of the Straits Settlements in the 19th century. The first building was allocated to court work in 1877. Located at South Bridge Road, the building housed a series of courts variously known as the Police Courts, the Magistrates' Courts and the Criminal District and Magistrates' Courts.
After World War II, a Fourth District Court was built in 1950 within the premises of the Supreme Court Building, followed by two other courthouses at Hong Lim Green in 1951. In the 1950s and 1960s, various courts operated from different locations based on their functions. The Juvenile Court operated from the Chinese Secretariat Building at Havelock Road, the Civil District Courts at Empress Place, the Seventh and Eighth Magistrates' Courts along New Bridge Road, the Ninth and Tenth Magistrates' Courts at the former Sepoy Lines Police Station, and the Coroner's Court along Outram Road.
In 1972, the Singapore government called for tenders for the construction of the Subordinate Courts Havelock Square Complex. Construction began in 1973 and cost about S$13 million. It was completed in 1975 and most of the courts moved into the new building. The complex was initially built for 26 courtrooms but the courts’ jurisdiction broadened over the years and the number of courtrooms increased accordingly. However, two divisions did not make the move to Havelock Square Complex until much later: the Family Justice Division at Paterson Road, and the Small Claims Tribunal at Apollo Centre. The former relocated to the new Family and Juvenile Court Building at 3 Havelock Square only in 2001 while the latter relocated to the Havelock Square Complex in 2005. With the movement of these two divisions, the Subordinate Courts' operations are now centralised at Havelock Square.
Court governance and administration
There are six main operational units in the Subordinate Courts. These are the Strategic Planning and Training Division, the Corporate Services Division, and four Justice Divisions. The latter is made up of the Criminal Justice Division, the Civil Justice Division, the Family Justice Division and Juvenile Justice Division.
The Senior District Judge (SDJ) spearheads the formulation and execution of strategic policies and has an overall responsibility for the daily management and administration of the Subordinate Courts. He is assisted by a leadership team comprising principal district judges, group managers, the registrar, senior judicial officers and senior court administrators. Court administrators provide essential paralegal support and administrative services required by the operational units of the Subordinate Courts.
In 1992, the implementation of night courts during weekdays raised questions about the long working hours of court staff. However, the organisation was recognised for its commitment to developing its staff through the award of the People Developer Standard in 1999 and was recertified in 2002 and 2006. It also won the prestigious Singapore Quality Award (SQA) for institutionalising business excellence in 2006.
Each division of the Subordinate Courts has a different jurisdiction covering a variety of cases. The Civil Justice Division comprises the Civil Trial Courts, Civil Registry, Primary Dispute Resolution Centre (PDRC), and Small Claims Tribunals (SCT). These courts generally deal with civil claims not exceeding S$250,000 in value. The District Courts deal with probate matters where the value of the deceased’s estate does not exceed S$3 million while the civil jurisdiction of a Magistrate’s Court is S$60,000.
The Criminal Justice Division comprises district and magistrate courts, the coroner’s court, community court, and specialised courts such as traffic court and criminal mentions court. In criminal cases, the district courts can try offences where the maximum jail sentence does not exceed 10 years while a magistrate’s court can try offences where the maximum jail sentence does not exceed three years or which are punishable with a fine only. The coroner's court holds inquiries to ascertain the cause of a person's death and whether anyone is criminally responsible. The community court was established in 2006 to deal with special cases such as offenders with mental disabilities, neighbourhood disputes, abuse to animals, cases which impact on race relations and attempted suicides. It maintains a clear interest in ensuring that offenders receive sentences or are put into programmes that will curb future criminal behaviour.
The Family Court deals with various family-related matters. It covers maintenance orders, divorce proceedings, division of matrimonial property, custody of children, adoptions and personal protection from domestic abuse. For marriages under Muslim law or marriages between Muslims, the Family Court has concurrent jurisdiction with the Syariah Court to deal with matters relating to maintenance, custody and the division of property upon dissolution of the marriage. The Family Court attempts to protect family obligations so that family ties may be strengthened and preserved.
The Juvenile Court tries criminal offences committed by person below 16 years of age except where the offence can be tried by the High Court or where the youth is jointly charged with another person who is above 16 years old. The philosophy of the Juvenile Court is based on the principles of restorative justice, which recognises the potential for change and reform in young offenders and seeks to balance the need for effective deterrence with the need for rehabilitation.
Reaching out to the community
Since 1993, the Subordinate Courts have implemented many programmes that aim to enhance community access to justice. This includes administrative measures such as publishing an annual report and a newsletter named Judicare that are accessible to the public as well as providing a court concierge service where personal one-on-one attention is given to court users.
The Courts have also used technology extensively. In 1996, it became the first judicial organisation in the region to introduce a fully computerised file tracking and information management system of criminal cases known as the Singapore Case Recording and Information Management System (SCRIMS). The system was enhanced in 2001. A website that incorporated a virtual tour of court premises and an explanation of its history and functions was set up in 1997. The Courts have also experimented with the use of technologies such as the use of 3G mobile devices to allow lawyers to conduct pre-trial video conferences and a virtual court.
The Courts have also reached out to specific special-interest groups such as lawyers, students and journalists. For instance, a series of lectures to the Bar was organised for the legal fraternity. Another example is the Peer Group Advisers Programme, in which students in selected secondary schools are given a chance to sit in court proceedings and to take part in discussions with the Juvenile Court Judge in chambers before judgment is passed. This preventative programme has raised the awareness of juvenile delinquency and issues relevant to teenagers today. In 2006, the Courts held an internship programme with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to provide interns with insights into issues involving the administration of justice. Since 2002, the Courts have also provided mediation and counselling to dysfunctional families through its Family and Juvenile Justice Centre.
1877 : First recorded building in South Bridge Road to house District and Magistrate Courts.
1950 : Fourth District Court built in the Supreme Court Building.
1951 : Two courthouses built in Hong Lim Green.
1973 : Construction of Subordinate Courts Building.
1975 : Relocation of various courts to new Subordinate Courts Building in Havelock Square.
1982 : Judicial Administration Computerised Programme implemented.
1985 : Small Claims Tribunal was formed.
1992 : Night Court sessions were established to deal with backlog of cases.
1993 : Publication of Subordinate Courts annual report.
1995 : Family Court was formed.
1996 : Singapore Case Recording and Information Management System (SCRIMS) set up.
1997 : Launch of Subordinate Courts website
1999 : Award of People Developer’s Status (PDS). Also awarded the National Association of Court Management (NACM) Justice Achievement Award 1999.
2001 : Family and Juvenile Division relocated to main building in Havelock Square.
2002 : Family and Juvenile Justice Centre set up.
2005 : Small Claims Tribunal relocated to Havelock Square.
2006 : Won the Singapore Quality Award (SQA) and Distinguished Public Service Award for Organisational Excellence.
2007 : Won the Justice Served Award.
2008 : Retirement of Senior District Judge Richard Magnus, who had been in charge of the courts since 1992. Principal District Judge Tan Siong Thye became the Senior District Judge helming the Subordinate Courts in August.
Faizah bte Zakaria
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(Call no.: English 347.5957 SUP)
$13 million Court [Microfilm NL7368]. (1973, March 21). The Straits Times, p. 7.
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Chan, Helena H. M. (1995). The Legal System of Singapore. Singapore: Butterworth Asia.
(Call no.: English 349.5957 CHA)
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(Call no.: English 364.36095957 REB)
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(Call no.: English 347.5957 SIN)
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.