Australian legal chief condemns awards
Law Council president accuses Singapore's new foreign lawyer regime of snubbing Australian firms and lacking transparency
Australian discontent at the absence of Australian law firms from the first round of joint venture licences in Singapore has flared up for a second time following a broadside from the president of the Law Council of Australia, Gordon Hughes.But the attack has earned a stern rebuke from the Attorney General’s office in Singapore, which has accused him of speaking out “without checking his facts”.Hughes said he welcomed the 30 August granting of Formal Law Alliance (FLA) status to Australian firm Freehills and its long-term Singapore affiliate Alban Tay Mahtani & de Silva (ATMD), but expressed regret that Australian firms had missed out on the more far-reaching joint venture licences (JVLs). “The announcement that Freehills and the Singapore law firm ATMD have been awarded an FLA licence by the Singapore Attorney General is good news,” he said. “It is one step forward in terms of greater access by Australian law firms to the legal services market in Singapore. Singapore lawyers and law firms already have liberal access to the legal services market of Australia. “At the same time,” he continued, “the Law Council of Australia… does not understand why the Singapore market for legal services, particularly in banking and financial law is, in effect, subject to a licence quota.”Hughes added that the Law Council would like to see a regulatory regime in place in Singapore that permitted foreign and local law firms to enter freely into joint arrangements for the provision of legal services, subject only “to meeting reasonable requirements” relating to the carrying on of professional practice.“The rules that govern the grant of an FLA licence are unclear, and we do not know whether there is any scope for a formal alliance licence to be upgraded to a JVL licence,” he said. “The Law Council would like to see well-qualified Australian law firms being given an opportunity to practise in Singapore under a JVL arrangement. This would benefit Australia-Singapore trade as well as regional investment.”“It is difficult to understand why it is necessary for Singapore, with its open market economy, to regulate the entry of foreign law firms under what appears to be [a] restrictive regulation which lacks transparency.”In April, the general secretary and CEO of the Law Council of Australia, Peter Levy, predicted that the Singapore Government’s anticipated liberalisation of its legal sector would be restricted to a handful of UK and US firms. This prediction was largely fulfilled last month when seven JVLs were awarded to five UK and two US firms. Clifford Chance and Linklaters were paired with Wong Partnership and Allen & Gledhill respectively, while Lovells tied the knot with Norton Rose’s former ally Lee & Lee. Allen & Overy joined forces with Shook Lin & Bok, while Freshfields was permitted to team up with Drew & Napier.Levy claimed Australian firms had been unfairly excluded from consultations carried out by the Singapore Attorney General’s Chambers. The claims were strongly refuted at the time in a letter to an Australian newspaper by the First Secretary at Singapore’s High Commission in Canberra, Jolene Tan.Paul Montgomery, managing partner of strategy at Freehills in Sydney, said the firm’s FLA licence had been awarded on the strength of its application, and was not connected in any way to the Law Council of Australia’s earlier campaign. The award is the only FLA licence yet granted by the Singapore authorities, and the only award of any kind granted to an Australian firm. The alliance between Freehills and ATMD came into effect officially on 1 September.A spokesperson at the Singapore Attorney General’s Chambers said the Attorney General would decide whether to reply publicly to the Law Council’s criticisms in due course. However, the spokesperson described Hughes’ comments as “inaccurate”, and added that Hughes had previously issued comments on the matter “without checking his facts”.Freehills has successfully secured a number of high-profile mandates across Asia in recent times, one of only relatively few Australian firms to do so. Much of the firm’s most notable work in Asia has been in the utilities sector. Last year, Freehills won the pitch to advise the Government of Korea and its state-controlled electricity utility Kepco on the reform of the Korean electricity industry. The firm has also advised the governments of Malaysia and the Philippines on electricity sector reform, and is currently advising the Singapore Public Utilities Board on regulatory and structural reform of Singapore’s own electricity sector.Following the announcement of its FLA licence, Freehills has confirmed that property partner Peter Mitchell is to relocate to Singapore, and that a further two patent attorneys – four partners and one lawyer – would also be joining forces with ATMD’s office.
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