Simpler State Court process for civil claims

Claims involving amounts up to $60k will be resolved faster and cost less

The shake-up of the Family Court system may have been one of the most significant developments in the legal scene last year, but a much less-heralded move could well have a similar impact.

In November, the Supreme Court inserted a new Order 108 into the Rules of Court, which in essence prescribes how lawyers do their work in civil cases.

Order 108's main aim is to simplify the State Court process when dealing with civil claims involving $60,000 and less - and as a result, shorten the time it takes to resolve a case and, crucially, cut costs significantly.

Lawyer Mohandas Naidu said: "A $60,000 civil claim involving a three-day trial that could cost up to $25,000 can now be billed for less than $10,000 if settled promptly under the new rules."

One of the key changes that Order 108 introduces is how parties will have to produce all relevant documents up front. This allows each side to better understand the relative merits of their cases.

Judges will also be able to narrow down the issues involved, and see whether the case is better resolved through mediation.

There are also restrictions on the number of expert witnesses, while summary judgments - which can end up being a long- drawn process - have been ruled out.

Lawyers whom The Straits Times talked to said Order 108 was sensible since a small-scale suit in the magistrate's court should not take as long and cost as much as a High Court commercial dispute.

Mr Naidu called it a "win-win" situation for both litigant and lawyer.

In October, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said in the Patron's Address of the Australian Academy of Law in Sydney that courts have to ensure the cost of litigation "is truly proportionate to the purposes we wish to achieve".

"Expending excessive resources on procedures... on claims involving no issue of public interest and with only a small sum at stake, is not merely inefficient but also unfair."

He noted in a 2013 speech that "almost nine in 10 cases heard by the Civil Justice Division involve sums of $60,000 or less".

The setting up of the Family Justice Courts in October shares a similar aim. Judges were given more power to settle cases amicably without acrimony or protracted court proceedings. The changes also simplify and streamline court processes, enabling faster resolution of cases.

Meanwhile, the Law Society has begun studying contingency fees at a time when costs are a concern. Such fees are paid to lawyers only when there is a favourable result, and typically are a percentage of the damages.

Such an arrangement will help those who want to pursue a civil claim but cannot afford a lawyer from the outset.

But the issue may turn out to be polemical among lawyers.

"Any discussion of this subject invariably invites a spectrum of polarised reactions, often visceral, sometimes violent, but always vigorous," said the Law Society's president-elect Thio Shen Yi last year. "Are flexible fee arrangements a Pandora's box or the Holy Grail? The truth probably lies somewhere in between."

Other changes last year include rebranding the Subordinate Courts as the State Courts in March, underlining their central role in the judicial system with an annual caseload of 350,000, or 95 per cent, of all court cases here.

In another interesting development, Camford Law Corporation in August became part of multinational PwC's global network of member firms as a separate independent entity within.

The move is to provide legal advice to organisations "in response to the ever-changing global business environment", said Camford Law director Bijay Nawal then.

It is understood to be the first instance of a law firm becoming part of a multinational enterprise dealing in professional services.

PwC executive chairman Yeoh Oon Jin said business and legal issues are more intertwined than ever before, and the move enables clients to appreciate the benefits of working with a global brand.

The situation will be keenly watched to see how it develops as an option to create opportunities to handle bigger projects.

Last year also saw legislation passed for the establishment of the Singapore International Commercial Court, which will hear international commercial disputes.

The new court, which is expected to be launched this month, is poised to be a major player in Singapore's move to become Asia's legal hub of choice, marking a new era in commercial litigation here.

vijayan@sph.com.sg