Short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the important points - at least according to Mr Amolat Singh, this is how judgments should be. Yet we observe that court decisions are becoming longer and longer, especially at the Court of Appeal. This has been empirically proven in “An Empirical Study of the Development of Singapore Law” (2011) 23 SAcLJ 176.
As earlier promised, I will discuss the distinctive writing styles of three judges who write very well but very differently: Justice Choo Han Teck and Justices of Appeal Andrew Phang and VK Rajah. Justice Choo is in my opinion the best writer on the Supreme Court bench, leaving aside legal reasoning and knowledge, which I am not in any position to critique.
Justice Choo embodies the miniskirt principle well. His decisions are generally brief and to the point, without missing necessary issues. He often does not go on to discuss further issues if he has decided on the points necessary to dispose of the case. He does not muddy the waters with hypothetical branches of reasoning (“even if X is right on issue 1, he would still fail on issue 2”). His decisions are therefore clean and easy to follow, untrammeled by the weight of unhelpful dicta.
Justice Choo is sparing with his use of quotes compared to other judges, who make a habit of quoting copious paragraphs from textbooks and cases. His preference for his own words earns my respect for his writing ability. Yes, the common law is a treasure trove of beautifully written judgments - but I think judges should find new ways to express legal ideas in their own words and add their own legacy to Singaporean common law. A citation to authority should suffice - if the reader wants to read the source, she can easily find it herself.
The third point I appreciate of Justice Choo’s judgments is his skilful use of literary references. The use of such references is becoming increasingly common, especially among the three judges mentioned (Choo, Phang, Rajah). However, I think Justice Choo’s references are particularly well-timed and appropriate. He also goes beyond the usual Shakespeare clichés, such as Chan Sek Keong CJ’s use of Portia’s “the quality of mercy is not strained” soliloquy in discussing judicial mercy in PP v UI  4 SLR(R) 500, to weave a variety of literary and mythological threads into his judgments. One of my favourite judgments of recent times is Ong Jane Rebecca v PriceWaterhouseCoopers  SGHC 146.
VK Rajah and Andrew Phang JJA are undoubtedly two of the most brilliant legal minds in Singapore’s legal history, and this is evident in their writing. Both of them write clearly and convincingly and organise their judgments very neatly. Both are also known for their very long appellate judgments, which can be quite a joy to read despite their length.
Between the two, I prefer Rajah JA’s writing. I particularly enjoy his use of archaic words that are rarely seen these days: gainsaid, apposite, salutary and others. He is also rather more descriptive and more generous in his use of metaphors.
One thing I dislike about Phang JA’s writing is his liberal use of italics. A hallmark of good writers is their ability to use words to express nuance. Emphasis can be portrayed in many ways: repetition, the use of more forceful words, clever use of punctuation, short sharp phrases and many others. Italics are an easy way out. Rajah JA does not hesitate to use strong words, both negative and positive, in his descriptions.
In sum, all three judges are definitely great writers and make for far more pleasant reading than any English judge, at least for Singaporeans. I am glad that our judges clearly put in a lot of thought and effort into their writing. Whether miniskirts or long flowing dresses, one can be certain that justice is done.