OUTLINE OF SINGAPORE LEGAL SYSTEM AND LAW

Outline of Singapore legal system and law; Singapore construction law and practice; arbitration & dispute resolution in Singapore.

Singapore has a system of law that is based on the "common law system." "Common law" means unwritten law and legal customs which had been recognised and given the force of law. It is "unwritten" in the sense that the law is not embodied in a code or statute but has come down in the recorded judgements and decisions of judges who interpreted it in actual cases involving actual litigants. These judgments have been recorded in various records, reports and text-books.

In essence, because of Singapore’s colonial past (it was once a British colony), this system of law is essentially British. In fact, English common law as at 27 November 1826, (including the law merchant) equity and statute law is a part of the law of Singapore by virtue of the Second Charter of Justice (an English statute passed for Singapore when it was a colony that was never repealed and applies even after independence). While common law and equity continued to grow and could continue to be 'received' into Singapore law it should be noted that, generally speaking, no English statute passed after that date could be regarded as automatically applicable to Singapore.

Aside from the common law there are some English statutes that are now being "received" into Singapore law by virtue of the Application of English Law 1993. Some of the English Acts expressly made applicable in Singapore are :-

  Partnership Act 1890;
  Misrepresentation Act 1967;
  Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977;
  Sale of Goods Act 1979;
  Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982;
  Minor's Contracts Act 1987; and
  Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1992.

A large component of the law of contract and tort of Singapore is based on English common law. English and to a lesser extent, decisions from other Commonweath countries are freely cited in the Singapore courts. Indeed, even though they may not be strictly binding, English cases decided after 1826 are still of relevance in Singapore and have considerable persuasive authority. No better example can be found than in the case of Donoghue v Stevenson which is regarded as the cornerstone of the modern law of negligence. Few judges or lawyeres would deny that that case which was decided in 1932 is applicable in Singapore.

Singapore lawyers and judges are bound by the doctrine of stare decisis (let the decision stand) which in effect means that the inferior courts are bound by the decisions of the superior courts). This doctrine is also known as the doctrine of binding precedents. Thus, in Singapore law, not only are precedents (previous decisions) important, but it is also important to know which decisions are binding, that is they must be followed and which are persuasive, that is they may be followed. Whatever the reason may be for the development of the doctrine, it does ensure that the law is kept up-to-date through authoritative pronouncements from the top of the judicial tree. At the same time, stability within the law is maintained by requiring all other courts to follow the decisions of higher courts.

Aside from the unwritten, Singapore also have written laws, passed by an elected Parliament. Some Singapore legislation, like in other countries, may be what is called codifying legislation. Such legislation gathers the common law and other rules of law on a particular subject into one Act. Thus the Singapore Penal Code is a piece of of codifying legislation. So is the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The system of trials is still the old British system. It is the adversary system. That is, where the two parties (or opposite parties) to a dispute actively take part in the trial and the judge sits more or less as a referee or umpire. This system is different from the French or Continental system which is known as the inquisitorial system where the Judge takes an active part in the proceedings.