I’m writing about exam cheating.
In recent weeks, there has been an effort by some commentators to attack lawyers and the Law Society, based on actions of persons who are not lawyers and not members of the Law Society.
Six persons cheated in their “Part B” exams. These are the final exams given to candidates who want to qualify as lawyers.
The six cheats were caught. They were told to wait a year or more before they could re-take their exams. They did so, and passed without cheating. These six have since applied to be called to the Bar as advocates and solicitors.
I want to make a few things clear.
These exams are not conducted by the Law Society.
These six are not members of the Law Society. The Law Society has no authority to punish them for cheating.
These six persons are not admitted to the Bar. That means they are not advocates and solicitors, and they are not permitted to act as lawyers.
When any person applies to be admitted to the Bar, strict processes must be observed. One important prerequisite to be admitted to the Bar is for the Law Society to issue a Letter of Non-Objection. This letter states that the Law Society does not object to that person’s application. The point of such a letter is to say that that applicant is a fit and proper person to be an advocate and solicitor of Singapore.
In the case of the six persons, the Law Society never issued such letters. This means that the Law Society did not agree to admit those six persons to the Bar.
I want to deal with three criticisms from commentators.
First criticism: There are commentators who criticized the Law Society for somehow turning a blind eye to cheating. There are commentators who have asked lawyers to reflect on their ethics, because non-lawyers have cheated in their exams. These commentators are misguided. It is because these six persons cheated that the Law Society did not agree to admit them as advocates and solicitors.
Second criticism: These six persons were serving as trainees in law firms. Commentators have criticized the law firms who gave training contracts to these six persons. These commentators failed to understand the sequence of events. Trainees apply to join law firms long before they take their Part B exams. They start and may even finish their training contracts before they take their Part B exams. When persons take their Part B exams, they do so on their own as private individuals, and not under the auspices of any law firm. There is no suggestion that any law firm gave a training contract to a trainee knowing that the trainee would later cheat in the Part B exam. It is unfair to target those law firms.
Third criticism: Commentators have accused the Law Society of agreeing to redact, or conceal, the names of the six persons. This is flatly wrong. After the Court ordered the redaction of the names of the six persons, the Law Society made submissions in Court to overturn that order. The Law Society believes in open justice. That is the best way to engender trust and confidence in the legal system.
In general, what this saga reveals is that there are commentators who are quick to condemn lawyers, based on the conduct of non-lawyers. They do so without understanding the background of events, or waiting for matters to be resolved. They are in a rush to judge us, practising lawyers, and to urge us to reflect on our own ethics. Indeed, ethics are important in our profession. They are important in every profession, vocation or job, whether one is a lawyer, leader or lay person. Ethics are important to all human beings. Lawyers pay close attention to ethics. It is an issue that crops up regularly. We guard ourselves, and we also check on each other, as colleagues and opponents. If there is something amiss, we probe and investigate.
As there are over 6,000 advocates and solicitors, we find a handful of them who have behaved unethically. We punish lawyers who are unethical. We report their misdeeds and publicise their names. No one, no matter how senior or prominent, is spared. When black sheep are exposed, the public may reproach us. But that is nothing compared to how we, as a profession, reproach ourselves and resolve to improve. We are committed to building a better Bar. This is a task that never ends, because the Bar is made up of human beings. When unethical behaviour is found, we actively discuss how to eradicate it. We know that this system that we have built is based ultimately on human beings trusting each other, and when that fails, we all fail. That’s why we care about ethics, because we have invested our careers in this one quality.
Because we value integrity in the legal system, we look carefully at each and every applicant who wants to join the system as a lawyer. We look at whether the applicant is fit and proper. This means we look into whether that applicant is, among other things, ethical. If so, the Law Society issues a letter of non-objection. If the applicant is unethical, the Law Society will not. In that way, we are one of the gatekeepers of the legal system.
This brings me back to the case of the six persons who cheated in their exams. Commentators are free to call out exam cheats, and bemoan the state of humanity. But commentators should bear in mind that these six persons are not admitted to the Bar, are not members of the Law Society, and are not lawyers.
Will they ever be admitted?
In the ranks of Singapore lawyers, there are criminals who have paid their debt to society, reformed, studied hard and qualified for the Bar. Today, they are upstanding members of the profession, using their experiences to represent and counsel young people to follow the law. So my answer to the six is this: it is up to each individual to reflect, reform, and convince not just the Law Society, but society in general, that they can be trusted, and they have something to contribute, to the nation, as lawyers.