“The World is facing a ‘Perfect Long Storm’, ‘Truth Decay’ has been finding its way into Courtrooms”: Singapore’s CJ Sundaresh Menon

Supreme Court: As the Supreme Court celebrate its Foundation Day for the first time on 04-02-2023, the Chief Justice of Singapore, Sundaresh Menon was invited as the Chief Guest for the event and delivered a lecture on ‘Role of Judiciary in a changing world’. Chief Justice Menon is the fourth Chief Justice of Singapore since 2012 and was previously the Attorney General of Singapore.

The event commemorated the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of Supreme Court which came into existence on 28-01-1950, two days after India became a republic on 26-01-1950.

Chief Justice Menon while commending his Indian counterparts and the Supreme Court of India, stated that it was among the busiest Courts in the world with the most hardworking judges because of the immense existing workload. “I saw this myself when I was honoured to observe proceedings yesterday in Chief Justice Chandrachud court alongside him. It is therefore a tremendous privilege for me to have spent several hours with the Chief Justice and a number of his colleagues.

Chief Justice Menon stated that “When judiciary functions well, it acts as a glue to hold the parts together. Judiciary needs legitimacy to function well, and it needs public confidence. Gaining that confidence requires a lot of work; Does the public believe we only exist to serve the wealthy or that we are here to serve justice?”

While referring to the pandemic as a world changing event, Chief Justice Menon highlighted the dramatic shifts in the global, political environment, with developments that signal a long-drawn war in Europe. He warned of greater threats lurking in the background, such as the prediction by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.

He then went on to quote Singapore Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam who suggested that the world faced a ‘perfect long storm of global challenges.’

He stated that alongside global, geopolitical instability, global health security and the climate change crisis, were the threat of stagflation and the risk of growing economic and social inequality. He explained that these global challenges concerned the judiciary because it would have an impact on one or many of the essential elements of their work competence and legitimacy, beside adding significantly to the pressure.

Chief Justice Menon proceeded to identify specific types of challenges, most of them arising directly or indirectly from these global challenges, which have particular relevance to Courts and legal systems.

  1. They would give rise to new legal issues in the future. Inaction, in the face of these global challenges would likely give rise to litigation.

    Example: Private individuals and entities have previously brought Government to Court for omitting to do ‘enough’ to curb carbon emission, with notable judgments having been issued in favour of such claimants by the highest courts.

    These issues are complex, time consuming and demanding and Courts will have to be prepared to develop new legal concepts and tools, as well as new ways of deploying an existing legal principle and practice.

  2. Complexification of disputes would stem from rapid rate of advance science and technology. It would give rise to the possibility of emergence of cases that are too complex or voluminous for any single human adjudicator to process.

    There are two facets to this trend: growing technical complexity and growing evidential complexity.

    There exists reliance on electronic communications and systems which collects massive amounts of data, that even a modest transaction generate volumes of documentary evidence.

    Example: Arbitration Tribunal reportedly received 10,000 pages written submission. Applying an estimate of 6 minutes to read and digest each page, it would take an Arbitrator 1000 hours or 6 working months to read the submissions. Thus, increasing the cost of litigation and compromising the expeditious disposal of cases.

  3. Legal issues would increasingly disregard boundaries as a consequence of Countries becoming more economically interconnected than ever before. The volume of international commercial disputes that have connection with multiple jurisdictions will, therefore, keep rising. Thus, the Judges will increasingly need to be sensitive to developments in the laws of other jurisdiction in order to properly decide disputes.
  4. Unequal accumulation of wealth, as well as increasing cost and complexity of legal dispute resolution would pose grave challenges with respect to access to justice. Sharp economic polarisation in societies inevitably contributes to the polarisation of public discourse, accompanied by a phenomenon called ‘Truth Decay’.

    Chief Justice Menon stressed that the truth was the foundation of justice systems, yet ‘Truth Decay’ has been finding its way into Courtrooms.

    He stated that “Like advocates concealing facts, if truth decay is not controlled, then voice of the judges will become another voice in the clamour of opinions and that is why often it is said that some judgment by a judge is a reflection of their personal opinion. Truth decay lead to destruction of trust in the judicial system.”

    The phenomenon of ‘Truth Decay’, i.e., the proliferation of misinformation and devaluation of truth, would spread into court proceedings and attack the justice system by, inter alia, diminishing the legitimacy of judgments and judges, and eroding public confidence in the institution.

  5. Distrust is now society’s default emotion- deficit of public trust could be because of causes such as ‘Truth Decay’, but also likely to be due to the sense that public institutions are failing to deliver.

    “Public trust is critical for the judiciary because its legitimacy rests on the broad public acceptance that we are reliable truth seekers and truth finders. If this trust falls away, courts will be left to operate solely on state power” he added.

    Chief Justice Menon further stated that since these challenges threatened the Rule of Law, Judges needed to respond ‘as best as they can’ to the to the ‘perfect long storm.’To fortify this contention, Chief Justice Menon cited how Judges have traditionally held themselves aloof from the public, but the strict principles warningjudges against commenting on government policy, defending their judgments publicly, or engaging with the media “have long fallen out of fashion”. Thus, while Judges generally continue to let their judgments speak for themselves, most judiciaries no longer see anything wrong with other facets of public engagement that spread awareness of judicial work, said Chief Justice Menon.

He further stated that there were three aspects of evolving vision of the Judicial role that explains why the judiciary should respond as the best they can to the perfect long storm.

  1. Beyond sitting as referees over disputes, true mission was the fair and efficient administration of justice so as to uphold the Rule of Law.
  2. Even though Judiciary cannot address the root causes of many challenges, it would still have legal and operational dimensions that directly and indirectly impacted the Judiciary. As a result, these matters would enter our domain and are duty bound to mount a response.
  3. Judges should recognise the value in being active participants rather than mere passengers in the transformation of justice system.

He also explains how to go about this herculean task:

  1. Systematic approach instead of piece meal of reactionary way
  2. Building user centric Court system
  3. Enhancing Judicial competency
  4. Promoting international Judicial engagement.

He concluded by saying, “At the start of my address, I painted a rather bleak picture of the perfect long storm approaching Judiciaries around the world. Meeting these global challenges will require a multipolar effort. And while the courts cannot lead the charge against their root causes, by refining our understanding of our role as Judges, we can tap upon the strength and expertise of Judicial institutions and redirect them towards responses to these challenges that accord with the constitutional role of the Judiciary. We should aim to become institutions that excel in the administration of Justice.This is a critical mission. If we fail, the perfect long storm portends a breakdown of the Rule of Law. But if udiciaries are successful in this endeavour, they will help guide their societies through the tempest.”

*Simran Singh, Editorial Assistant summated the data.

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