Friday 29 September 2017

Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin retires, receives rare tribute from ministers, judges and lawyers

Tributes pour in for retiring Judge of Appeal Chao
Ministers, judges laud Justice Chao Hick Tin and his contributions at valedictory reference
By Selina Lum, Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Sep 2017

Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, the only judge to have served under all four post-independence Chief Justices, will retire today on his 75th birthday, after over 50 years in public service.

Yesterday, a rare valedictory reference - last held in 1990 for retiring Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin - was conducted to honour Justice Chao and his contributions.

It was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Law Minister K. Shanmugam as well as fellow judges and lawyers.

Mr Shanmugam, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, former deputy prime minister S. Jayakumar, Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran, Supreme Court Registrar Vincent Hoong and Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang gave speeches paying tribute to him.

They lauded Justice Chao for his well-known attributes, such as his humanity, patience and kindness, as well as his practical wisdom, clarity of thought and the courage to do what he believed was right.

A book of essays by 17 contributors, titled A Judge For The Ages, which focuses on Justice Chao's work as a judge in diverse areas of law, was also launched at the event. It was edited by Justice Phang and Professor Goh Yihan, dean of Singapore Management University's School of Law.

Mr Shanmugam revealed how Justice Chao, as a 25-year-old legal officer in the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), played a role in Singapore's long-term water security when he attended a United Nations Conference on the Law of Treaties in 1968, following Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965.

During discussions, the Malaysian representative acknowledged that "some treaties might be so fundamental to the very existence of states that they simply could not be dispensed with, whatever political differences might arise", said Mr Shanmugam.

The representative said the treaty under which Malaysia had to supply a certain quantity of water daily to Singapore "could not be terminated or suspended between the two states for any political reason".

Mr Shanmugam said Justice Chao, on hearing this and realising how important it was as water from Malaysia was linked to Singapore's very survival, reiterated that the Malaysian representative had said that "even the severance of diplomatic relations... would not affect the water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia".

In doing so, Justice Chao had put on official record Malaysia's express confirmation that the water agreements cannot be terminated, whatever political differences might arise, said Mr Shanmugam. And the importance of having that acknowledgement, "as a matter of UN record", was that it has given Singapore added confidence whenever Malaysia took issue with the water agreements.

"We owe Justice Chao a deep debt of gratitude."

Justice Chao obtained his bachelor's degree in law from University College London in 1965, and his master's degree a year later.

He began his legal career in 1967 in the AGC.

He was appointed judicial commissioner in 1987 and elevated to a High Court Judge three years later. He was appointed a Judge of Appeal in 1999.

He was made Attorney-General in 2006, returning to the Bench as Judge of Appeal and vice-president of the Court of Appeal in 2008.

As a legal officer advancing Singapore's interests in the international arena for 20 years, Justice Chao was also involved in the Pedra Branca dispute from the late 1970s, and was a key member of the team that negotiated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Professor Jayakumar, who was then law minister, recounted how Justice Chao played a pivotal role in fighting to ensure Singapore's navigational interests.

Despite the many capacities in which Justice Chao has impacted Singapore's legal history, it will be his 28 years as a judge that will likely be remembered most vividly, said Chief Justice Menon.

"It was as a judge that he epitomised the human face of justice, and what a lovely face it was; it was as a judge that he contributed a vast tract of jurisprudence that will have an immense and lasting influence on Singapore law for decades to come; it was as a judge that he expressed his deep love for the law most visibly," he added.

Speakers also shared light-hearted anecdotes.

Prof Jayakumar revealed how Justice Chao is an excellent cook who would rustle up fantastic meals after working sessions, while he and the others, including Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, washed the dishes.

Attorney-General Wong related how Justice Chao, who was part of the Singapore delegation for the Asean Law Association conference, was left behind in the Jakarta airport because he chose to go shopping while the others were ushered to the VIP lounge.

"Unflappable as always, he just took the next flight back, with his shopping no less."

Retiring Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin on his career: I would not do anything differently
By Selina Lum, The Straits Times, 28 Sep 2017

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.


In the 1980s, appearing in some of our courts could be like being caught in a tempest. So the calmness and kindness in Justice Chao's court was like getting a safe refuge.

- LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM, who was a young lawyer in the 1980s taking on his first significant High Court case when he appeared before Justice Chao, then a judicial commissioner.


I admired the way he would doggedly protect and promote Singapore's interests. If ever there was a situation where I needed a tough comrade in arms, Chao Hick Tin would be that person.

- FORMER DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AND LAW MINISTER S. JAYAKUMAR, who has worked together with Justice Chao in the context of international negotiations and diplomacy.


I do not exaggerate when I say that Justice Chao is the most loved of all the judges... I hope that my colleagues will not take offence when I say that none of us comes close in this particular regard.


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