Last year CommBar was treated to the visit of Geraldine Andrews QC, before she took her seat in the Queens Bench Division. Her vast experience in arbitrations in Singapore is legend. For court appearances though, as with most common law jurisdictions, the Singaporeans are protective of their turf. They resist giving audience to foreign practitioners. So when the High Court of Singapore handed down its decision in re Andrews, Geraldine Mary QC [2012] SGHC 229, new ground was broken concerning a foreign practitioner’s right of appearance in Singapore, good news for Victorian barristers. But as we essay below, ad hoc admission there is not without a catch.

Singapore’s legal profession is fused. Advocates are either partners in or employees of law firms. More than a third of all practising Senior Counsel are with the country’s four largest law firms. Conflicts are an everyday problem for a client seeking to engage Silk.

For more than 20 years, overseas counsel have attempted to practise in Singapore. To assist, the Singaporeans amended their Legal Profession Act in 1991 and again in 2012. The 1991 amendments allowed a court to admit Queen’s Counsel for the purpose of a particular case only where the court was satisfied that the case was of sufficient difficulty and complexity to warrant such admission. Even if that was proved, the QC was not to ordinarily reside in Singapore or Malaysia and the QC needed to possess special qualifications or experience before being admitted.

Some of the 1991 requirements were relaxed by the 2012 amendments. The 2012 amendments did away with the need for proof that the case was of “sufficient difficulty and complexity” to warrant the admission of a QC or holder of “any appointment of equivalent distinction of any jurisdiction”. But as something new, the 2012 amendments authorized the Chief Justice to give a “notification” that certain matters were of importance to the court in relation to a person’s application for admission. Those Notification requirements are (a) the nature of the factual and legal issues of the case; (b) the necessity for the services of a foreign senior counsel; (c) the availability of any Senior Counsel or other local practitioner with appropriate experience; and (d) whether having regard to the circumstances of the case it is reasonable to admit a foreign senior counsel.

Ng Chee Weng was the plaintiff in a breach of trust case involving shares, the unpaid dividends of which amounted to almost $9m. The plaintiff said the defendants held those dividends on trust for him. The plaintiff encountered staggering difficulties pleading his case. A collection of local counsel and Silk from the big Singaporean firms attempted in vain to articulate the plaintiff’s case in a manner that overcame a barrage of successful strike out applications, several of which went as far as the Court of Appeal. Concerned about his overall prospects of success the plaintiff engaged Geraldine Andrews QC, a London Silk who had conducted a litany of arbitrations in Singapore but was not admitted as a local practitioner. Mr. Ng requested her to seek admission in Singapore. She did. Her case attracted a high degree of attention and Court of Appeal Justice V K Rajah was assigned the task of determining her application. She was duly admitted.

The key points that emerge can be summarized as follows –

  • now that the “sufficient difficulty and complexity” test from the 1991 amendments has been removed, an applicant must meet all four of the (a) to (d) criteria of the Notification;
  • the court seeks to strike a balance between the plurality of objectives of (a) nurturing and the local Bar; (b) allowing litigants to engage their counsel of choice; and (c) ensuring the proper administration of justice;
  • if a litigant wants to retain a foreign Silk the litigant must prove the steps taken to seek out local counsel with the appropriate experience.

Mr. Ng persuaded V K Rajah JA that he should be permitted to retain Geraldine Andrews QC.

Any Victorian barrister seeking ad hoc admission in Singapore needs to be familiar with this case.