Shanmugam: Too harsh to permanently ban cheating trainee lawyers from the Bar

However, a message about dealing with their actions "very seriously" must also be sent, he said.

Matthias Ang | May 10, 2022, 05:00 PM

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The 11 trainee lawyers who cheated in the 2020 Bar exam should face "significant sanction" to bring across the seriousness of their conduct, Law Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament on May 9.

However, to permanently ban the trainees from being called to the Bar may be too harsh, he added.

The minister was responding to questions raised by Members of Parliament Seah Kian Peng and He Ting Ru about giving the trainees a second chance and whether the punishment meted out will be sufficient.

Shanmugam said, "The offence here is cheating, which is serious. Who committed it? Trainee lawyers, that is also serious, doubly serious."

A message about dealing with such actions "very seriously" must therefore be sent.

The minister also highlighted that the matter was currently before the courts and he had a need to be careful about what he could say.

"How the courts (will) decide, I think we have to wait and see," he added.

Lawyers have to act with the "highest standards"

In elaborating on the standards that lawyers had to abide by, Shanmugam said:

"Lawyers are fiduciaries. They are expected to act in the best interests of the client they advise. They are also officers of the court – meaning they owe a very high duty to the court. They have to be honest, both with their clients and with the court. They have to act with the highest standards of probity, to ensure that they can be relied upon with utmost confidence, and that is not just as lawyers advising clients, but in every other aspect of their conduct."

Cheating is therefore a "serious" derogation from the basic principle of honesty, he added.

With regard to a lawyer behaving dishonestly, there are different levels of seriousness.

The minister pointed out:

"Misleading clients is serious. Lying in court is serious. Lying on oath is serious. Some of these carry potential criminal consequences. There is also other conduct which, if it is unbefitting of a lawyer, whether or not in the context of advising a client, can also be taken up. These are basic principles."

The court will therefore take into account the views of the Attorney-General, Singapore Institute of Legal Education (SILE) and the Law Society when dealing with the trainee lawyers who cheated, he said.

Additional safeguards have been put in place

In the meantime, the SILE has said that additional safeguards have been put in place against cheating, Shanmugam noted.

Remote proctoring has been introduced for examinations that are conducted online.

In addition, SILE has not found any more cases of cheating in subsequent rounds of the Bar examination.

"There is a difference between whether it has happened and what they have found, but they have not found anything else," he added.

As for the 11 trainee lawyers in question, Shanmugam highlighted that once the adjournments on their hearings for admission end, they will need to convince all the stakeholders involved that they are "fit and proper" to practise law, before they are allowed to do so.

He said:

"As with all admission applications, the High Court has the discretion to rule on whether a particular applicant should be admitted or should not be admitted, taking into account the views of the Attorney-General, SILE and the Law Society."

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Top screenshot from CNA