Our Beginnings

Enactment of Subordinate Courts Act 1970

The history of the State Courts as an organisation began in 1971 when the Subordinate Courts Act 1970 came into operation. This Act designated the District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts and Coroners’ Courts as subordinate courts. It also created the office of the “Senior District Judge” as the head of the subordinate courts. Mr Abdul Wahab Ghows, who was then leading these courts as the District Judge and First Magistrate, became the first Senior District Judge under the Subordinate Courts Act.

Centralising Delivery of Justice

In 1970, the Government decided to build a modern courthouse to consolidate the District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts and Coroners’ Courts which were located in different parts of Singapore. Construction of the new courthouse at 1 Havelock Square started in 1973 and on 15 September 1975, the Subordinate Courts Building opened its doors to provide the public with one-stop access to justice.

  Subordinate Courts Building at 1 Havelock Square
  Source: Mr C S Chew

​Did you know?
When modern Singapore was founded in 1819, there was no proper court system. Disputes were managed mainly by village chiefs.
The first Magistrates’ Court was set up in 1823 to deal with petty criminal and civil cases.
Singapore’s first Coroner was Mr Andrew Farquhar. He was appointed on 17 December 1827.
The first criminal courthouse was located at South Bridge Road. Built sometime between 1882 and 1885, it housed the District and Magistrates’ criminal courts until 1975, and the Coroners’ Courts until 1956 when the Coroners’ Courts relocated to Outram Road. 
​  Criminal courthouse at South Bridge Road
  Source: National Archives Singapore
  Coroners’ Courts at Outram Road
  Source: National Archives Singapore

The first District Courts were established in 1907. 
The present Arts House (formerly Old Parliament House) was home to the Civil District Courts in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, these courts moved into what is now the Asian Civilisations Museum. 
  Civil District Courts at Empress Place
  Source: National Archives Singapore

The Juvenile Court was established in May 1949 to address the rising juvenile delinquency in the aftermath of the war. It first operated out of the Chinese Secretariat building (now the Family Justice Courts building).
  Chinese Secretariat building at Havelock Road
  Source: National Archives Singapore


Our Growth

Experience of the Bench

The Subordinate Courts Act 1970 required all District Judges and Magistrates to be legally qualified persons – a District Judge must be a qualified person for not less than five years and a Magistrate must be a qualified person for not less than one year. Prior to that, lay magistrates could be appointed to hear criminal cases. In 2014, the minimum statutory requirements for the appointment of judicial officers were raised. Presently, a District Judge must be a qualified person for not less than seven years and a Magistrate must be a qualified person for not less than three years.

Expansions in Jurisdiction

With the enactment of the Subordinate Courts Act 1970, the Magistrates’ Courts, which used to have jurisdiction over criminal matters only, could hear civil matters. Over the years, the jurisdiction of the District and Magistrates’ Courts have also gradually increased. While the Magistrates’ Courts could hear claims below $1,000 under the Subordinate Courts Act 1970, they can now hear claims of up to $60,000. The District Courts, which had jurisdiction for claims up to $5,000 under the Subordinate Courts Act 1970, can now hear claims of up to $250,000 or up to $500,000 in the case of road traffic accident claims or claims for personal injuries arising out of industrial accidents.

Establishment of Specialist Tribunals and Centre for Dispute Resolution

To provide expeditious, less costly and more informal processes for the resolution of low-value claims and relational disputes, the State Courts have established specialist tribunals for different types of disputes – Small Claims Tribunals in 1985, Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals in 2015, and Employment Claims Tribunals in 2017.

Court-annexed alternative dispute resolution has enabled the State Courts to manage our cases effectively and parties have benefited from the amicable settlement of their matters without trial. The Court Mediation Centre was set up in 1995 to provide court-annexed dispute resolution (CDR) services to parties with civil matters. Over the years, the CDR process has become an integral component of the State Courts’ case management strategy. In 2015, the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution (SCCDR) was established as a division of the State Courts to facilitate the effective and expeditious resolution of civil, community and relational disputes.

Evolution of Family Courts

On 1 March 1995, the Family Courts were created as part of the then Subordinate Courts to hear maintenance, child abuse and protection matters under the Women’s Charter. On 1 April 1996, matters of divorce, nullity and separation were transferred from the High Court to the Family Courts. In 2014, to address the unique needs of family justice more comprehensively, the Family Courts were restructured to exist as a separate judicial body known as the Family Justice Courts. Established on 1 October 2014, the Family Justice Courts comprise the Family Division of the High Court, the Family Courts and the Youth Courts (formerly the Juvenile Courts).

New Chapters

Subordinate Courts renamed as “State Courts”

On 7 March 2014, the Subordinate Courts were renamed as “State Courts”. This was in recognition of the key role that these courts play within the community as the primary dispensers of justice. The name, which combines dignity with gravitas, reflects the important national function that the State Courts perform in adjudicating disputes and dispensing justice. 

State Courts Logo

In addition to the renaming to State Courts, the apex post in the State Courts was redesignated as “Presiding Judge of the State Courts” to reflect the critical role that the Presiding Judge, who would be a Judge or Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court, plays as he helms the leadership of the first instance courts.

A New Courthouse to be Future-ready

With the projected future caseloads and increased demand for legal services by the community, it was assessed in 2011 that the octagonal-shaped State Courts Building would not be able to support the needs of the State Courts over the next 50 years. On 28 May 2014, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to mark the commencement of the construction of a new 35-storey courthouse.

On 13 December 2019, the iconic State Courts Building closed its doors and the State Courts commenced full operations in the adjacent State Courts Towers on 16 December 2019.

The State Courts Towers are fitted with 53 courtrooms and 54 hearing chambers. The organisation’s commitment to providing convenient access to justice is reflected in the design of the new courthouse. Services that are commonly used are centralised for the convenience of court users – the Central Registry located on Level 2 of the State Courts Towers provides one-stop service for court users who need assistance with their court applications, and the Business Centre allows users to print and scan their documents or access the online services. There is also a HELP Centre comprising the Community Justice Centre, The Law Society Pro Bono Services, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development Probation Intake Office to assist court users who are unfamiliar with the court and legal processes. The building also adopts Universal Design features to ensure that it is accessible to persons with disabilities, the elderly and young.

Find out more about the former and current State Courts buildings through the commemorative publication One Havelock Square.

To learn more about the State Courts, visit the State Courts Heritage Gallery which takes you through the transformational journey of the State Courts and offers an insight into the work of the courts of first instance and our role in upholding the rule of law. The State Courts Heritage Gallery is located on level 1 of the State Courts Towers.

Last updated on: 12/1/2021 7:09 PM