CJ seeks to ease doctors' fears of malpractice suits

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon speaking at the Opening of the Legal Year 2016 at the Supreme Court on Jan 11, 2016.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon speaking at the Opening of the Legal Year 2016 at the Supreme Court on Jan 11, 2016.ST PHOTO

Aim is to prevent higher insurance costs and medical practice shaped by fear of litigation

SINGAPORE - Moves to discourage doctors from practising medicine that protects themselves from liability, and prevent higher insurance costs arising from medical lawsuits are being considered, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said yesterday at the opening of the Legal Year 2016.

They include: Promoting mediation as a primary step to settling medical malpractice disputes, moving to a judge-led process over an adversarial one and appointing medical assessors to help judges understand cases.

"Medical care is of direct concern to all Singaporeans, and we must avoid a situation where the practice of medicine comes to be adversely affected by the medical practitioner's consciousness of the risks of malpractice liability," said CJ Menon.

In the last three years, 34 suits were filed with the Supreme Court involving a potential total of at least $8.5 million in claims. Another 23 medical negligence cases were filed in the State Courts in the same period. "The experience in other countries suggests this is a space we must watch carefully," he said, noting that medical practice cannot be "distorted" by the fear of lawsuits.

The Legal Year 2016 opening, at the Supreme Court, was attended by some 500 members of the law fraternity, including guests from overseas like Brunei's Chief Justice, Dato Seri Paduka Haji Kifrawi Dato Paduka Haji Kifli, and New Zealand's Justice Matthew Palmer. Also present were members of the judiciary and legal community, including Professor S. Jayakumar and Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah.

To assist judges, a standing panel of medical assessors who are senior doctors nominated by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) will be established. A list of judges to handle medical litigation will also be set up in the High and State courts, with the Singapore Judicial College working with SMC to provide training for them as well as medical assessors.

Justices Belinda Ang and Judith Prakash will also lead an initiative on how procedures can be refined.

Lawyers say the moves deserve support, stressing the benefits of mediation. Medical insurance lawyer S. Selvaraj said there should be a mediation scheme similar to the practice in the State Courts, where a judge can give some indication of any liability involved before the case proceeds to assessment of damages.

In addition to improvements to medical litigation, CJ Menon outlined initiatives in various areas to cement the country's position as a regional legal hub and drive it towards a world-class legal sector.

For instance, to keep apace with the new complexities of an ageing population and increasing number of transnational marriages, the family courts will have an international advisory council of internationally renowned judges and experts in family law to discuss latest ideas in the field and study best practices.

Other measures to boost efficiency include a possible review to raise the District Court's $250,000 ceiling on claims and the maximum claim limit for the Small Claims Tribunal as well.

Attorney-General V.K. Rajah called for more use of community- based sentencing options for less serious offences, as prosecution and punishment cannot be the only response to crime.

In his address, Law Society president Thio Shen Yi lauded the giant strides in pro bono work to help accused persons since enhanced moves to boost the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme kicked in last May.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'CJ seeks to ease doctors' fears of malpractice suits'. Print Edition | Subscribe