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Retiring Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin on his career: I would not do anything differently

Justice Chao Hick Tin will be retiring as Judge of Appeal on Sept 27, 2017.
ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Straits Times September 28, 2017

by Selina Lum

If he could choose his career path again, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin said he would not have it any other way.

“If I were to start my working life all over again, I would not do anything differently,” he said in a written reply to questions from The Straits Times.

“I have had an enriching and fulfilling 50 years in the public service, with many unique experiences along the way, such as being involved in the long-drawn negotiations (from 1974 to 1982) on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Asked to name significant cases he has handled, Justice Chao, who has penned more than 600 judgments, said two cases came to mind, not because of the legal issues raised but because of the length of the trial and the animosity between the parties.

One was a dispute he heard in the 1990s between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law, while the other was the divorce of a celebrity couple and the related matters.

He also cited the recent split decision in the murder case of Jabing Kho, in which a five-judge Court of Appeal ruled 3:2 that the death sentence should be imposed, as the accused had attacked the victim in a savage and brutal manner that displayed a blatant disregard for human life. Justice Chao wrote the majority decision.

Loved by lawyers for his patience and kindness, Justice Chao is known for giving lawyers a good hearing.

“As I see it, the task of the judge is to hear the parties and decide the matter fairly and impartially, having regard to the evidence before the court and the applicable law.

“I feel that the court, especially a trial court, ought to give the parties adequate time to establish their respective cases. This is not to say that the court should always indulge a party’s pointless pursuit of a particular line of questioning or a particular legal point. The court must always seek to strike a balance, bearing in mind time and resource constraints,” he told ST.

In his speech at his valedictory reference yesterday, Justice Chao credited this philosophy to a piece of advice that has shaped the way he has acted as a judge all these years.

“The advice was this: Let counsel develop his case; don’t anticipate and be slow to stop counsel from adducing evidence. Even on a point of law which you may think you are familiar with, always listen to what counsel has to say first.”

In his speech, he noted that his 50 years in public service have had their ups and downs.

“Of course, there were times when dispensing justice in a case seemed difficult or elusive. Still, as judges, we always have to do our level best.”

Post-retirement, he said his immediate plan was to travel.

“I have spent a good 50 years in the public service. I only hope that I have in some small way contributed to the development of our law and our legal system,” he told ST.

 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline ”I would not do anything differently” at http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/i-would-not-do-anything-differently

This was the speech delivered by the President of the Law Society at the Valedictory Reference in honour of Justice Chao Hick Tin on 27 September 2017.

1. The Honourable the Chief Justice, Sundaresh Menon
The Honourable Judge of Appeal Justice Chao Hick Tin,
The Honourable Judge of Appeal Justice Andrew Phang,
The Honourable Judges and Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court
Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Teo Chee Hean
Minister for Law Mr. K. Shanmugam
Former Minister for Law, Professor S. Jayakumar
Attorney General Mr. Lucien Wong SC
The Honourable Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr Vincent Hoong

May it please the Court.

2. How do you do justice to a judge who, without exception, has shown justice to all and sundry who have appeared in his court? I am privileged to valiantly attempt that on behalf of the Bar in this Valedictory Reference in your honour, Justice Chao Hick Tin.

3. To the Bar, Your Honour first and foremost personified kindness and gentleness. This meant a lot to practitioners particularly to junior counsel. Many senior litigators appeared before Your Honour during the nascent stages of their practice when you served as Judicial Commissioner from 1 October 1987 and thereafter Supreme Court Judge from 15 November 1990. They vividly recall court appearances in Your Honour’s Chambers and Courtroom in the old Supreme Court building. Wong Chai Kin writes: “I remember when I was part-called and appeared before you in Chambers, you were so kind and patient. You remain being kind, patient and fair in all your Judgments and dealings with lawyers”. In Peggy Yee’s words “You will always be remembered (and spoken about) by me as being the kindest gentlest Judge! That’s not to say you’re a pushover. You never were…. I remain in practice to this day (since call in 1988) because you did not scare me off from Year 1 onwards”. Nicholas Aw’s recollection is that “You were the first High Court judge whom I appeared before after my call in 1994. I remember I was nervous and had butterflies in my tummy. But you were so very patient and even though you said you had to pick up someone, you did not put pressure on me. You were very kind and to this day, I still am glad to see that you have not changed your demeanour” .Yap Teong Liang describes being “awestruck” by the impression Your Honour first had upon him with “your temperament, calmness and clarity of thought”. Law Society Council Member, Chia Boon Teck, summed it up by noting that “Of all the qualities that you possess, your kindness will always be remembered.”

4. Qualities of kindness and gentleness come from strong inner values. We could glean these values from your judicial observations. For instance in Re Kalpanath, this flowed from your pen and I believe your heart: “… ours is a secular society, in the sense that there is no one single religion to which the people of Singapore generally subscribe to. However, this does not mean that there cannot be shared values that our society, as a collective whole, may adopt. We believe that one such common value is forgiving those who have trespassed against us … there is a public interest in encouraging the rehabilitation of those who have gone astray and allowing those who are now reformed, to reenter society and contribute to its well- being”.

5. Many lawyers attest to your famed courtesy and consideration towards counsel, party and witness. As a junior trial lawyer appearing before Your Honour in Yin-Marguerite Murphy and Anor vs PT Jaya Putra Kundur, I witnessed that. Your Honour’s appointment as Judge of Appeal on 2 August 1999 proved a huge loss for trial lawyers. We missed your judicial temperament at first instance. In veteran lawyer, Ms Sujatha Bhargavan’s words: “It was always a pleasure to appear before Your Honour for hearings. Your sound decisions and the manner the trials were conducted gave assurance and comfort to all of us that even if we did not succeed in a trial it was only because we had a bad case…”

6. The High Court’s loss was the Court of Appeal’s gain. After your stint of service as Attorney-General, from 11 April 2008 onwards, you resumed service as Judge of Appeal. Appellate advocates wax lyrical of how court appearances before Your Honour have been an exquisite pleasure. In Senior Counsel Davinder Singh’s words: “Justice Chao remained unaffected by the heights that he scaled or the power he wielded. He discharged his duties with honesty and humility and treated one and all with respect and civility”. Senior Counsel N Sreenivasan candidly shares that: “When many of us are stressed or lose faith, a hearing before you restore zest and enthusiasm. You have become the administration of justice embodied at its best”.

7. Your Honour continued to advance in your judicial career. In 2008, Your Honour was appointed as Vice President of the Court of Appeal. Yet your incredible patience and kindness diminished not an iota. It was still on display – particularly on appeals you presided over. Discerning observers could see that Your Honour was at pains at times, through carefully considered comments, post-delivery of oral judgment, to soften the blow for a losing party or Counsel for the same.

8. If home is where seldom is heard a discouraging word, Your Honour’s court was closer than home. When you furrowed your brows during a hearing, it was hardly ever at counsel. It was due to thoughtful consideration of the issue at hand. As if you were trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle of what the truth was in the given case.

9. That leads to a second notable quality that the Bar will remember Your Honour for. Your incisive intellect. Time fails me to do even a snapshot of the close to 1,250 judgments Your Honour either delivered or decided in the Supreme Court. The cases show that you have been one of the apex court’s intellectual heavyweights. In lawyer Tan Yew Cheng’s words “Your Honour brought justice, sharp intellect and a keen mind to each case”. Suffice to say that many of Your Honour’s decisions remain good law and have lasted the test of time. No wonder lawyer Peggy Yee recorded in our tribute book that: “I’ve always proudly announced that
I willingly accept all Judgments by you as they are fair, reasoned, and most of all, meted out in a kind and merciful way”. Peggy’s views are not iconoclastic.

10. Modern courts strongly emphasize efficient administration of justice. Singapore courts are an exemplar. Your Honour struck the right balance in that strong emphasis with an equally strong ethos of commitment to do justly. The late Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court said “If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach. If you like them all the time, you’re probably doing something wrong”. A commitment to do justice (no matter how uncomfortable) is the hallmark of truly great judges. Former Law Society President Chelva Rajah SC famously quipped at the 1992 Law Society Dinner and Dance that “When we talk about justice delayed being justice denied, we must also remember that justice hurried is justice buried”. The Bar feared neither a barrier to, nor burial of, justice in your courtroom.

11. Instead, there was counsel and courage. The third legacy of Your Honour’s judicial career. While righteousness and justice flowed from your courts, there was also a steady stream of wonderful counsel on the deeper issues. Your judicial observations revealed a humane touch. To cite two reported examples, one the closing sentences of Your Honour’s judgment in the decision in Kho Jabing v PP: “… there comes a point after the appeals have been heard and the applications for reviews have been decided, when the legal process must recede into the background and give way to the search for repose. We think that time has come.” Secondly, Your Honour’s conclusion in the judgment delivered on behalf of the Court of Appeal in the Republic of the Philippines v Maler Foundation and Others involving conflict of laws issues. There, Your Honour rejected the Human Rights’ victims’ claim to funds but emphasized that the court “would not in any way wish to deny the moral claims of the Human Rights Victims and acknowledge that the Human Rights Victims deserve redress for the grievous wrongs that they have suffered”.

12. Your Honour also showed the courage of your convictions when you needed to stand alone. For instance, Your Honour’s dissenting judgment in Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd v MCST Plan No 301. This was vindicated by a differently constituted appeal court a few years later. In Law
Society of Singapore v Manjit Singh, Your Honour delivering the judgment of the Court of Three Judges struck off a well- known senior lawyer from the rolls for egregious ethical conduct. In the recent case of Ilechukwu Uchechukwu Chukwudi v PP, Your Honour delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal ordered a rare review of the court’s earlier decision reversing an acquittal “due to the unique turn of events” involving an IMH report making it a “truly exceptional case”.

13. Your personability and winsome manner has been there for all to see on extra judicial occasions as well. In the words of practitioner Ms Ellen Lee “I am particularly touched by how you could call me by my name whenever we met, even though my appearance in your Court was not very frequent, especially in recent years! I shall miss you and your friendliness …” This made you an ideal Head of Delegation for Singapore at the Bar and Bench Games. It is perhaps a fitting capstone that Team Singapore under your helm won the Judges Cup this year on home soil. We look forward to having your inspirational presence with us in future to lift our game. Even if on the sports court and not in the Supreme Court!

14. You were also one of the founding members of the ASEAN Law Association. You sowed a far-sighted vision in pioneering leadership in this regional organization uniting Bench, Bar and other stakeholders of the legal profession. I believe that these valuable seeds of the past will produce a harvest next year. A golden opportunity for ALA to scale new regional heights under the dynamic leadership of our present Chief Justice when Singapore hosts the General Assembly in July 2018.

15. On behalf of the Law Society, thank you for your stellar service, Justice Chao. It is with sadness that we bid farewell from this Court to Your Honour. We wish you well for your retirement. You are respected greatly by the Bar. Not only for being an outstanding jurist on our Supreme Court Bench. But also for never once letting your greatness make you lose touch with humanity.

► Gregory Vijayendran
President
The Law Society of Singapore


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