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2013: Transformation and thrills

The year has seen new QFLP licences granted to foreign firms, and host of scandals

Mr Shanmugam: Commenting on laywers' pay hike, he said competition for good young lawyers has intensified

IT has been a highly eventful year for Singapore's legal industry, on several counts: Bold moves were made to further transform the sector, as courtrooms played host to tales of one headline-grabbing scandal after another.

The start of this year saw new Qualifying Foreign Legal Practice (QFLP) licences being awarded to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Jones Day, Sidley Austin, and Linklaters. These four global players made the cut out of 23 applicants.

That brought the total number of QFLP licences handed out by Singapore to 10. The six firms that got the licences the first and only other time they were awarded, in 2008, were Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose, and White & Case.

The awarding of these sought-after licences is part of Singapore's continued push to broaden and deepen its legal services market, and are awarded to firms that can bring "fresh foreign work into Singapore, of international quality, and who can add a significant premium to our legal scene", Law Minister K Shanmugam said.

The QFLP licence allows foreign law practices to practise in permitted areas of Singapore law except for domestic areas of litigation and general practice, such as criminal law, retail conveyancing and family law.

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The QFLP firms bring in fresh work and clients, and raise the bar; but they also increase the competition for work and talent within the industry.

One effect of that has been the need for local law firms to increase their starting salaries, to keep pace in the race for talent.

The Business Times reported in July that the Big Four law firms had hiked their starting pay packages to between $5,800 and $6,400, with some boutique law firms - such as TSMP Law Corporation - offering up to $7,000.

Despite still falling short of the five-figure salaries offered by several foreign law firms here, the new pay packages are significantly up from the $5,200 offered by local firms in 2010 - the last time pay hikes in the industry made the headlines.

Mr Shanmugam, commenting earlier this year on the pay increases, said that "competition for good young lawyers has intensified", due to the steps taken in the past few years to make Singapore a leading international legal centre, which has also "increased work for some Singapore law firms".

But Singapore's moves to transform the legal sector have not just been about providing more high-level services and higher pay; they have also been about making sure that every man has access to justice.

The state announced in October that it will be opening a third law school at UniSIM, catering to those interested in pursuing a career in "community law" - that is, those who will service the needs of the community by practising criminal law and family law.

This was one of the proposals made by the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers, chaired by Judge of Appeal Justice VK Rajah, and accepted by the Law Ministry.

The Committee, in its review, found that there will be a pressing shortage of lawyers who practise community law, which would eventually affect access to justice for the average citizen and, in turn, raise fundamental questions about the proper administration of justice.

"A legal system which is priced beyond the means of the average citizen loses its credibility for effectiveness and fairness," it said.

Meanwhile, the courtrooms saw their share of the administration of justice this year, as they heard a slew of high-profile scandals.

Former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay was found not guilty of corruption in February this year; it was a case that grabbed national attention, being the first sex-for-favours scandal involving a high-ranking government official.

The second such case involved the former Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) chief, Peter Lim, who - unlike Mr Ng - was found guilty of accepting sex in exchange for favours. He was convicted in May of corruptly obtaining sex from a 49-year-old sales director who had worked for Nimrod Engineering, a vendor of the SCDF, in exchange for furthering the business interests of Nimrod.

Lim also admitted to seven more corruption charges involving trysts with two other women who were working for separate vendors of the SCDF.

He was in October granted early release from his six-month jail term, and has also since been dismissed from public service.

But that was not the end of the scandals involving those in public office. Lim Cheng Hoe, the former chief of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was in October charged on 60 counts of cheating the ministry of almost $90,000 by falsifying his claim forms - by allegedly inflating claims he made on numerous bottles of wine and thousands of boxes of pineapple tarts supposedly bought for official ministerial trips. His case is likely to be heard sometime next year.

The coroner's inquiry into the death of American Shane Todd was a case that drew international attention. Mr Todd's parents alleged that sinister plots and cover-ups prevented a proper investigation into the death of their son - allegations which necessitated the intervention of Mr Shanmugam, also Singapore's Foreign Minister, and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The coroner eventually ruled the death as suicide - a finding that was accepted by the US Embassy, which added that the inquiry had been "comprehensive, fair and transparent".

The year's highest-profile case is one that will continue well into next year; City Harvest Church (CHC) pastor Kong Hee, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, board member John Lam, former CHC board member Chew Eng Han, finance manager Sharon Tan and former finance manager and board member Serina Wee stand accused of criminal breach of trust; Chew, Wee and the two Tans have also been charged with conspiring to falsify accounts.

The six individuals and their criminal case received a stunning amount of publicity in 2013; the public latched on to just about every detail emanating from the case, ranging from how the CHC members dressed (in the case of Wee) to where they lived (Kong's Sentosa Cove house).

They are likely to continue capturing the public's interest in 2014. The Business Times understands that court dates have already been set for as late as September, with the first tranche of hearings next year starting on Jan 13.

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