Changes to the Singapore Legal Market: Part I

It was announced todaythat the Singapore Government has accepted, in principle, the recommendations made by the Committee to Develop the Singapore Legal Sector.The Committee made far-reaching recommendations to improve the entire legal services sector. One of the more significant proposals relate to a further liberalisation of the legal sector to not only enhance the present Joint Law Venture scheme, but to also full-out allow foreign law firms to practice Singapore law in certain commercial areas. This area I hope to cover in more detail in Part II of this post.

Part I will however deal with another significant area, that of a review of the present legal education system and admission procedures to the legal profession.

(i) 3-year LLB course

The Committee took note of the fact that there were strong arguments to support the reduction of the present 4-year LLB programme to only 3 years and recommended that the law schools consider, at an appropriate juncture, to offer a 3-year undergraduate programme.

(ii) Vocational Training Course

Next, the Committee recognised the weaknesses in the present Practical Law Course (PLC). It did not act as an effective gatekeeper as nearly all the students entering the course would pass the course. It also did not allow any scope for specialisation as all the subjects are compulsory. The Committee also received anecdotal feedback that the Graduate Diploma in Singapore Law (DipSing) had outlived its utility. The course could be unproductive as it often repeats the content of courses from overseas, with a slight local flavour.

The emphasis of the new Vocational Training Course would be on imparting practical skills

To address these problems, the Committee recommended the replacement of the PLC with a new Vocational Training Course (VTC). The duration of the course would be for 6 months, but ultimately it could be increased to a year. The emphasis would be on imparting practical skills as well as allowing students to tailor their own courses and to specialise in subjects such as advanced civil and criminal procedure, litigation skills, admiralty law, corporate practice and corporate restructuring.

I would imagine this new proposed VTC would be akin to the English Bar Vocational Course and the Legal Practice Course.

The Committee also suggested for the DipSing to be abolished and that eligible graduates from the recognised foreign universities would take additional modules introducing them to Singapore law, in a practical context. In time, it may be necessary to introduce a local VTC for the graduates from the local universities, who are already trained in Singapore law, while having a verson of the VTC for foreign graduates. Eventually, it is envisaged that the Vocational Training Course would have the same cachet for lawyers wishing to practice in the region as the New York Bar exam is to lawyers worldwide. Maybe slightly over-ambitious, but still a move to be lauded.

(iii) Training Contract to Replace Pupillage

There is also the recommendation to restructure the present pupillage system to a training contract one. It is hoped that the training contract will oblige firms to engage its trainees in a structured learning programme, and there is the recommendation that there be a rotation among the departments. This could be more of a cosmetic change than anything else. The training contract period will still be maintained at 6 months (whereas the UK has a 2-year period) and I would imagine most of the pupillages are already very similar to the proposed training contract.

Sadly, when looking closer at home, Malaysia does not appear to be making any progress in enhancing its legal admissions system or resolving the present trichotomy – the local graduates forming one part, UK Bar graduates skip straight into pupillage without training in Malaysian procedure, while other graduates are forced to go through the grind of the CLP (more on the complaints surrounding CLP over here). I have also written in the past on the weaknesses of the present pupillage system in Malaysia.

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