Recent changes to the Singapore Bar admission requirements have made it easier for foreign lawyers to get admitted to practice law in Singapore. Here are the requirements Malaysian lawyers need to meet.
This first-part will set out in some detail the process in which a Malaysian lawyer can get admitted to the Singapore Bar. Due to the various rule changes over the years, with different admission standards applying for different years, it will focus mainly on younger lawyers who obtained their law degrees after 1997.
Part 2 will then shift to a different perspective where we get to learn about the personal experience of a LoyarBurokker who recently sat for the Singapore Bar examinations.
Increasingly, Singapore seems to be the port of choice for many Malaysian lawyers to practice in. There are many factors attracting Malaysians over, including higher pay and the opportunity to gain better exposure to higher level work.
In the past, the most common route to work in Singapore was to find a position as a foreign lawyer. This allowed a lawyer to work at Singapore law firms but without the need to be admitted to the Singapore Bar. Strictly speaking, as a foreign lawyer, you could advise only on foreign law but in practice, you largely carried out the same duties as a Singapore qualified lawyer but without the ability to attend Court or to sign off on documents or opinions. Some of the drawbacks of being a foreign lawyer were that in most cases, you would draw a lower pay than a Singapore qualified lawyer and your promotion prospects may also be affected.
While many Malaysians do still go over to Singapore to work as foreign lawyers, there have now been some recent changes to the admission requirements which make it easier to get admitted to the Singapore Bar.
Even before you consider taking the Singapore Bar examinations, you will need to see if you satisfy certain prerequisites, and if you don’t meet these requirements, then you need to plan and see if you can apply for exemptions.
Broadly, to get called to the Singapore Bar, you need to satisfy 3 requirements:
I will explain more on these 3 requirements below and how the most important threshold to cross is that of being a “qualified person.”
(i) Scheduled Universities
You need to have graduated from a certain list of scheduled universities, as a full-time internal candidate with a certain degree class. You can go through this useful checklist to see if you are a “qualified person” by first checking which university you graduated from.
So for instance, for a UK graduate, you would need to have been a full-time internal candidate with at least a Second Lower degree from a list of only 19 recognised universities. For an Australian graduate, you would need to be in the top 70% of your graduating batch from a list of only 10 recognised universities.
Some examples where you would not satisfy the requirements for being a “qualified person”:
However, you would be able to apply for exemptions from any of the requirements which I will elaborate on further below.
(ii) Permanent Resident
Another requirement is that you will need to be a Permanent Resident or a citizen of Singapore. So a factor you must take into account for being admitted to the Singapore Bar would be whether you are planning on moving down to Singapore to then apply for Permanent Resident status.
(iii) 6 Months of Legal Practice
You need 6 months of either “relevant legal training” or “relevant legal practice” to satisfy this final requirement to be a “qualified person.” So, if you were in active practice in any jurisdiction other than Singapore, this would fall under the definition of “relevant legal practice”. Chambering/pupillage may also qualify under the definition of “relevant legal training.”
(iv) Part A Bar Examinations
The final requirement to be met is that you would need to pass the Part A Bar examinations. The examinations cover 5 academic Singapore law subjects: Criminal, Evidence, Land, Singapore Legal System & Constitutional, and Company. You can either opt to sit for only the examinations, held once a year in November, or to attend a 3-month course (starting in August) and then sit for the examinations. This year the exam format was open book (i.e. you could bring in all your study material with you into the examination hall) while last year, it was closed book.
The deadline for applying for the Part A Bar Examinations (both for the course + exam or just the exam) is by the end of April of every year.
More information on the Part A Bar Examinations and its syllabus/fees are on the National University of Singapore website.
QUALIFIED PERSON – EXEMPTIONS
If you do not satisfy any of the above requirements, you can apply for exemptions. A common exemption is from the requirement of being a full-time internal candidate from a scheduled university. So for instance, an exemption to allow for a twinning programme to be recognised, or an exemption as your university does not fall under one of the scheduled universities.
The present exemption process, from what I have heard from friends, seems to be more flexible in allowing twinning programme candidates as well as non-recognised foreign universities graduates. I know that graduates from local Malaysian universities have a very hard time in getting an exemption and I have not heard of any London external degree law graduates having obtained an exemption as well. All these policies are of course subject to change and are discretionary.
In terms of applying for an exemption from the Permanent Resident requirement, it appears that this exemption is not granted any more or is at least very difficult to obtain. You therefore will likely need to obtain Permanent Resident status in Singapore if you are considering getting admitted to the Singapore Bar. I know of senior practitioners having successfully applied for exemption from the Part A requirement as well. For instance, I had a Malaysian lawyer friend with around 10 years of experience and she was exempted from Part A. But they still needed to become a Permanent Resident of Singapore.
Applicants who are intending to sit for the Part A Bar examinations will put in their exemption applications around the same time in April when applying for the Part A. More information on exemptions can be found on the Singapore Ministry of Law website.
PART B BAR EXAMINATIONS & TRAINING CONTRACT
Having now satisfied the prerequisites of being a “qualified person”, you will need to complete the Part B Bar examinations as well as the 6-month training contract.
The Part B Bar examinations are made up of a compulsory 5-month practical law course and exam, which in some respects, is very similar to the English Bar Vocational Course (now renamed to the Bar Professional Training Course) in that it teaches you practical aspects of Singapore law. The subjects covered include subjects such as Civil and Criminal Procedure, Conveyancing Practice, Professional Responsibility, and Family Law. More information on the Part B can be found at the Singapore Board of Legal Education website.
After successfully completing these examinations, you will then need to serve a 6-month training contract, which is akin to pupillage.
EXEMPTION FROM PART B AND TRAINING CONTRACT
You are allowed to apply for complete exemption from the Part B Bar examination as well as the 6-month training contract. To obtain such an exemption, you will need to already be a “qualified person”, and also been practicing in a common law jurisdiction for at least 2 years (and this period could possibly include your 9 months of chambering as well). If you do not fulfil any of the requirements of being a “qualified person”, or you have not achieved the necessary length of practice, you can also try to apply for exemption from such a requirement.
In conclusion, if you are a practitioner in Malaysia, of 2 years experience or more, you can likely be exempted from having to take the Part B Bar examinations as well as be exempted from the 6-month training contract. You will however need to still pass the Part A Bar examinations and in order to qualify to sit for the Part A, you will need to fulfil the other requirements of being a “qualified person.”
Lee Shih was away from the office for 3 weeks sitting for his Part A Bar examinations. Try as he might, he has not been able to clear enough of his work to bring down the fort of papers and documents built up in his absence. He blogs at all the world’s a stage and tweets @iMleesh