Citation(2005) 17 SAcLJ 518
Published date01 December 2005
Date01 December 2005

The Right Honourable the Lord Woolf of Barnes, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, delivered the Twelfth Singapore Academy of Law Annual Lecture on 17 August 2005. His Lordship showed, from his observations on the UK’s constitutional arrangements, that a written constitution is not the only way to ensure society’s commitment to the rule of law. Constitutional principles may be contained in a number of different instruments, some of which have gained special constitutional status by helping to protect the rights and liberties of the citizen and upholding the independence of the Judiciary. Finally, Lord Woolf also examined recent constitutional reforms.

I. Introduction

1 I would like to start by expressing my gratitude to the Chief Justice and the Academy for the hospitality I have received so far. The Chief Justice even extended to me the great courtesy of meeting Lady Woolf and myself at the airport which we greatly appreciated. We were also very pleased that Justice Tan and the Director of the Academy, Ms Serene Wee, were there to meet us with two of the Assistant Registrars of the Court.

2 It is a great honour to be invited to give this lecture. I am well aware that the fact that your distinguished Chief Justice, who continues to serve this jurisdiction with distinction, is graciously chairing this lecture significantly increases the honour involved in giving the lecture.

3 The Chief Justice and I have known each other for some time. It was ten years ago that I delivered the first part of my report on Access to Justice. For the purposes of that report, I visited Singapore and met the Chief Justice Yong Pung How for the first time. We had in common a profound belief in the importance of procedural justice and I like to think that shared belief has constituted a bond between us when we have met thereafter in different parts of the world.

4 I believe that we are right to emphasise the importance of access to justice. Justice is valueless if those who believe their rights have been or are about to be infringed are unable to obtain access to a court and then obtain, within a reasonable time at a reasonable cost, a judgment which can be enforced. Equally, of course, the most efficient proceedings are valueless if the result of the proceedings is not a just decision.

5 My visit ten years ago vividly brought home to me what can be achieved by procedural reforms harnessed to an appropriate system of technology. I returned to England convinced that, so far as procedural justice is concerned, Singapore set the standards to which others aspire. Certainly, ten years ago, Singapore provided an admirable model for a judge coming from the UK. I like to think, I hope not immodestly, that just as my visit to Singapore affected my thinking on civil procedure, so my report, in due course, not only improved English civil procedure, it also resulted in improvements in procedure in many parts of the common law world.

6 Here I should mention that I am of course aware that our Senior Master is regularly in contact with colleagues in Singapore; using the video telephone generously provided by Singapore for the purpose of discussing procedural issues of mutual interest. I hope these exchanges are a fruitful example of the benefits that can be achieved from discussions between different jurisdictions.

7 Civil procedure is not the only area where there is commonality of interests between our two countries. Like the UK, Singapore is a member of the Commonwealth. I hope, therefore, to be carrying on discussions with judges and lawyers from Singapore not only during my present visit, but also at the Commonwealth Law Conference in London in September this year.

8 An area where it may not initially be so apparent that commonality exists between our two jurisdictions is in relation to constitutional issues. Of course, like the UK, Singapore has a sovereign Parliament. Like the UK, Singapore is a democracy, though, unlike the UK, voting in Singapore is compulsory. Again, unlike the UK, Singapore has a single chamber Parliament and does not have any institution the equivalent of the House of Lords, of which our most senior judges are members now, but will soon cease to be members because of the reforms to which I will refer later.

9 That brings me to the most significant difference between the UK and Singapore for the purpose of this lecture. This is the fact that after its

independence in 1965 (the 40th anniversary of which you, with justification, celebrated just over a week ago), Singapore became a constitutional democracy with a written constitution — a written constitution that is the supreme law of Singapore and which is entrenched so that the constitution cannot be amended without the support of more than two thirds of the Members of Parliament on the second and third readings. This is a distinct difference between your constitutional position and that of the UK. In the UK there exists no single document that can be said to constitute our constitution. Certainly there is no UK instrument that requires any special parliamentary majority before it can be amended or revised.

10 Notwithstanding these real and significant differences between our constitutional position and yours, it is my hope that what I have to say about developments in improving the protection of the rights of the individual in the UK will be of some relevance to my audience. After all, at least until independence, Singapore’s constitutional arrangements were in part dependent on those in the UK and until independence constituted UK law as part of the existing law of Singapore, the continued validity of which the Constitution of Singapore1 recognises.

11 While today, under your constitution, the citizens of Singapore’s basic rights are guaranteed, their British counterparts had no comparable rights until 2000 when the European Convention of Human Rights became a part of our law as a result of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c 42) (“HRA”). Even now, the status of the rights that the HRA made part of our domestic law is different from the rights conferred by your constitution. This is because they depend on legislation, namely the HRA, which like any other legislation can be repealed or amended by the ordinary legislative process as the Act is not entrenched.

A. The non-entrenched constitutional instruments

12 However, I like to think that the fact that the HRA is not entrenched is more of a problem in theory than it is in practice. This is because I believe and hope that no government would feel it was politically desirable to attract the electoral odium involved in seeking parliamentary support for tampering significantly with the HRA.

13 The HRA has this protection because it is one of the latest of a select succession of instruments which because of their constitutional importance have acquired a special status and have become part of our evolving constitutional settlement. The instruments which have this quality stretch back over the centuries to Magna Carta. They include the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 (c 2), the Bill of Rights of 1689 (c 2) and the Act of Settlement of 1701 (c 2). Over the same period the common law has, as a result of the decisions of the courts, been developing individual values over the centuries to which the courts extend special protection.

14 It is the combined effect of these instruments and the development of the fundamental common law principles that can be traced back 790 years to Magna Carta that up to the present time have provided our constitutional protection. 790 years ago in 1215, John was King of England and was having difficulties with his Barons. The difficulties arose because of the taxes King John had imposed. They were extortionate. In addition, there had been ruthless reprisals against defectors and the administration of justice could be described as capricious. The result was that the Barons became disaffected. They knew John needed their support for his further military adventures and this strengthened their bargaining power. The Barons did not miss the opportunity. In January 1215, the Barons collectively decided upon industrial action. They insisted that, as a condition of their support, John execute a charter that recognised their liberties as a safeguard against further arbitrary behaviour on the part of the King.

15 On 10 June 1215, the Barons and the King met at Runnymede and, in the meadow, compromised their differences and agreed terms which were outlined in the Articles of the Barons to which the King’s great seal was attached on 15 June 1215. The settlement that was reached was condemned by Pope Innocent. He alleged the Charter was exacted by extortion. However, fortunately for us and for the history of common law rights, John met an early...

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