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Photo of Mr Lucien Wong from Allen & Gledhill

Attorney-General stresses need for more lawyers to deal with increasing and complex cases

Attorney-General Lucien Wong says there is a need for the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to beef up their manpower to deal with the increasing number of cases, as well as more complex ones, citing the many bilateral issues that have cropped up in the past year with Malaysia.

Mr Wong, who has been AG since 2017 at the age of 64, said that the AGC strives to be a ‘strategic partner’ to the government. Speaking at the Opening of the Legal Year 2019, Mr Wong described the previous year as being ‘fast-paced’. He noted that 2018 presented many issues that are ‘complex and varied’.

Managing the cross-border relationship with Malaysia is one such issue as bilateral ties were ‘put to the test’ after the historic change in Malaysia’s government last year which the AC says has had ‘significant impact’ on ongoing bilateral projects.

For example, the AGC was involved in advising the Singapore government and supported the negotiation process on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project. Mr Wong noted that the outcome was ‘positive and balanced’ as both countries agreed on a solution that safeguard’s Singapore’s interests.

Some other bilateral issues that the AGC was involved in include the Johor Straits maritime dispute, the airspace management issue over southern Johor, and the reviews of water prices under the 1962 Water Agreement.

Mr Wong said, “We, as Singaporeans, have grown up with the mantra that Singapore as a small nation-state has no hinterland and is dependent on trade and human connections to thrive,” he said. He added that a small stated like Singapore needs to build and manage its relationships with other states and the law is in important tool in that process.

Apart from international issues, the AGC is also heavily involved on the domestic front, having worked on issues such as cybersecurity and data sharing. On this note, Mr Wong cited the Public Sector (Governance) Act drafted by the AGC that became law last year. The law introduced a data sharing regime among different government agencies.

Additionally, the AGC has been helping the government to update, improve, and refine existing social policies such as enacting the Vulnerable Adults Act to further protect adults from abuse, neglects, and self-neglect.

With all that’s going on, the Mr Wong pointed out there’s been a government-wide increase in demand for its legal services. As the AGC is not in the position to ‘reject work’ from government agencies that would affect national objectives, Mr Wong stressed the need for more lawyers under the AGC.

According to an AGC spokesperson, the complexity and volume of legal work handled by the AGC has increased over the last five years. For example, the AGC has attended to about 70% more civil hearings this years as compared to 2013.

In that same period, the number of concluded criminal cases in the High Court and Court of Appeal has more than doubled while cases in the Magistrate’s Appeals have increased by about 70%. On top of that, legislative work has increased as well by 167% since 2013 based on the number of bills.

To handle all those cases, the AGC has 597 lawyers under in its employ in 2018, which is slightly more than in 2017 (594) and 2016 (565). As such, Mr Wong says that the AGC will be boosting its manpower strength over the next five years to deal with the influx in demand for their legal services. However, the AGC did not go into details about how many lawyers they plan on hiring.

Mr Wong added that a bigger staff would allow the workload to be spread out among more officers, allowing them room to breathe and better concentrate on delivering quality for the AGC’s clients and for Singapore.

He also said that more office space will be acquired as well to accommodate the additional staff. Additionally, the AGC is also continuing to invest in technology that will help their officers spend less time on administrative matters, allowing them to focus on delivery quality work. The AGC will roll out an ‘intelligent workspace’ this year which includes providing officers a personal dashboard to monitor their work.

Anyone with an increased workload could argue for more manpower. Recently, the AGC filed a 500-page complaint to the Singapore Law Society against Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, Ms Lee Suet Fern pertaining to the Late Lee Kuan Yew’s will. Presumably that would have taken a lot of man hours to write up and file. And in 2017, the AGC filed court documents in their case against Li Shengwu which were in excess of 1,300 pages.