Number of mediation cases filed hits record high

More people are turning to mediation to settle spats, with Singapore's pioneering mediation centre reporting its highest number of cases filed in its 20-year history.

The Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) handled 499 cases here involving a record $775 million last year. The number of cases was a 72 per cent jump from 2015.

The majority of the disputes were commercial in nature, with about a quarter involving construction, company and shareholder disputes, the SMC said yesterday.

The spike comes as mediation is given a boost through new judicial initiatives and a new legislative framework. Since last October, for instance, straightforward divorces and contested estate cases involving at least $3 million in assets may be ordered for mediation at the SMC, instead of being heard at the Family Justice Courts.

A change to the Supreme Court practice directions last year also requires lawyers to advise clients that mediation is a viable option.

At a Beijing conference of the Asian Mediation Association last October, Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang underscored the significant role the Singapore judiciary played in cementing mediation as one of the prime ways to settle disputes.

He pointed out how mediation is made an attractive option through judicial policies and practices, and how it is also cheaper than a court trial, for instance.

He highlighted that more than 90 per cent of the cases settled were done within 24 hours at the SMC.

Judge of Appeal Phang cited the SMC's track record in handling large sums in dispute, having mediated more than $3.5 billion worth of disputes in total, including a $209 million claim - the highest so far.

Rajah & Tann partner Jonathan Yuen, who has been a certified mediator for more than a decade, attributes the increase in mediation to greater awareness of its benefits.

"There is also a mindset change, unlike before, when agreeing to mediation was seen by a lot of people as a sign of weakness," he added.

Drew & Napier Senior Counsel Hri Kumar Nair believes that cost plays a key part, with litigants having to consider the time, manpower and opportunity costs of a court trial, in addition to the legal fees, "not to mention the stress and the uncertainty of the result".

"Another reason is the experience and competence of the mediators we have now," he added.

Clients, Mr Nair said, are more agreeable to mediation as they cannot be forced to accept a deal they are not satisfied with. Anything they say during the process is also confidential and cannot be used against them subsequently.

"This 'openness' (being able to talk freely behind closed doors) helps parties articulate their real grievances and concerns, and may allow them to reach a solution which the law may not be able to provide," he added.

"I have been involved in a number of mediations, including one where the agreement was finally signed at 3am. There was one particular case where the different parties were all victims of a fraudster, and the legal issue was who should bear the responsibility for the loss, which ran into the millions.

"Ultimately, the parties agreed to share the loss... This was not a solution which the law provides."

SMC executive director Loong Seng Onn said the centre has, over the years, worked closely with businesses and professional bodies to promote mediation, and has also trained numerous lawyers and others in mediation skills.

"As mediation gains traction, the next phase of our work is to make mediation a viable full-time career. We are working to create specialist panels to meet the needs of users."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Number of mediation cases filed hits record high'. Print Edition | Subscribe