New scheme offers faster, cheaper way to resolve disputes without turning to courts

A new scheme that aims to help people resolve their disputes in a faster, cheaper and more amicable way was launched yesterday, in what is to be an "intermediate step" between self-help and starting court proceedings.

Instead of representing themselves, litigants unable to afford legal fees or qualify for legal aid can now tap the Primary Justice Project, which gives them a chance to come to terms at an early stage - and avoid entering the court system altogether.

It entails engaging, for up to six hours at $1,900 that includes an administrative fee, a lawyer who will give basic advice and facilitate settlement negotiations.

The first hour, a consultation, will focus on exploring options to resolve the dispute. Parties can then undergo negotiation and mediation sessions with the other side if they choose to continue.

The scheme, which was announced last year by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, will be administered by the Community Justice Centre. It is a collaboration between the centre, State Courts and Law Society.

Yesterday, citing CJ Menon's recent announcement of plans to set up a State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution, Presiding Judge of the State Courts See Kee Oon said in a speech that the Primary Justice Project was in line with the State Courts' direction of "locating justice not only within but outside the courts".

The judge, who is also Judicial Commissioner in the Supreme Court, said: "Potential claimants who come through the scheme do not start off in a combative mode with an antagonistic 'letter of demand' but with an invitation to seek resolution before the conflict has a chance to escalate."

The scheme applies to civil claims below $60,000 that are beyond the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Tribunal, and divorce matters with most ancillary issues already close to being settled.

Services will be provided by lawyers from a panel who possess at least three years of post-qualification legal experience. These lawyers have also been trained in mediation or mediation advocacy skills, and been given a directory of alternative dispute resolution service providers which they can refer their cases to.

Lawyers welcomed the initiative. Said Mr Amolat Singh, who is on the scheme's panel: "Those who go to court are at the mercy of the system; here, creative solutions can be worked out."

Said Ms Dorothy Tan, who practises family law: "For most Singaporeans who go through a divorce, there is still a thread of sentimentality and amenability to working through the problems. That should be encouraged."