Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): Sir, this Bill will strengthen the training of law graduates and better equip them to enter the legal profession.
Key amendments introduced include decoupling admission to the Singapore bar from practice training, increasing the practice training period, allowing limited rights to practise after six months’ training and introducing a moratorium for practice training contract applications.
I have three clarifications to raise.
My first set of clarifications relate to the moratorium date on applications for training contracts. The Bill empowers the SILE to disregard any period in calculating the training period completed by a practice trainee. The explanatory statement clarifies that this may include any contravention of the moratorium date on applications for training contracts.
Can the Senior Parliamentary Secretary clarify how any breach of the moratorium date will be factored into calculating the training period completed? For instance, will SILE discount the training period completed by the same amount of time that the practice trainee and law firm breached the moratorium? Would SILE consider certain factors as aggravating or mitigating in this calculation? And are there other penalties that practice trainees would face, apart from the discounting of the training period?
Second, can the Senior Parliamentary Secretary share whether law firms may face any penalties if they offer practice training contracts in breach of a law student’s moratorium? It does not appear that this Bill provides for such penalties. If that is the case, can the Senior Parliamentary Secretary explain the rationale behind such an omission?
The omission is odd because the Bill’s explanatory statement says that a moratorium is meant to be two-prong: it bars law students from making applications and it bars law practices from making offers. It seems inconsistent and unfair to punish only the student if the law firm wittingly makes an offer in breach of the moratorium date.
Finally, can Senior Parliamentary Secretary share how the SILE detects breaches of the moratorium? The Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers themselves noted in their recommendation that breaches would be hard to detect. Will there be audits or reporting obligations that enable more effective policing of the moratorium?
My second clarification is on the exposure of practice trainees to contrasting practice areas. One reason the Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers (CPTL) recommended increasing the practice training period to one year was to allow practice trainees more meaningful exposures to contrasting practice areas. However, small law firms may not be able to provide such exposure, given that their firm’s work may be more narrow. Can the Senior Parliamentary Secretary share what efforts will be made to ensure that even practice trainees in small law firms can have meaningful exposure to different practice areas?
My third and final clarification is on the salary of practice trainees that many Members have raised. Practice trainees usually receive salaries that are significantly lower than what they would earn as a fully qualified lawyer. For example, it is reported that the Big Four law firms in Singapore pay trainees an honorarium of around $2,000 to $2,500 while their first-year associates now get $7,500 to $7,900. The effect of increasing the practice training period to one year is that practice trainees will earn a lower salary for a longer period.
While the media has reported that some law firms are looking to increase practice trainee salaries, relying on individual law firms’ review of practice trainees will likely lead to unequal and inequitable outcomes across the board. Can the Senior Minister of State share what steps will be taken across the board to review practice trainee salaries? Sir, notwithstanding these clarifications, I stand in support of the Bill.
Watch the speech here.