Scaling costs not best way to make justice system accessible to all

The one good thing that has come out of the recent proposals on scale costs for civil litigation is that they have forced busy legal practitioners to pause, come together and conduct intense and deep soul-searching into the values and goals of their noble and ancient profession (Lawyers raise concerns over move to cut fees; Nov 14).

One of the stated goals of the Civil Justice Review Committee was to advance access to justice for all persons, including litigants-in-person and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Access to justice for all, and not only to those who can afford full legal fees, is an important aim shared by many members of the legal profession, especially practitioners in small firms.

As pointed out during the Nov 12 townhall session, many small firms operate on the basis that clients who can pay full fees do so but those who cannot are charged much less or no more than they can afford, with their subsidy funded by the fees earned from the full-paying clients.

The small-firm practitioners, many of whom chose not to practise in bigger firms so as to be free from large billing targets, already operate this form of noblesse oblige, which benefits all stakeholders.

As pointed out by Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi, litigation scale costs may not be the best way forward in increasing the public's access to justice. Indeed, a proper analysis would suggest otherwise.

I would suggest that one clear way forward would be to, instead, make it mandatory for all law firms, big or small, to undertake pro bono, low bono or Legal Aid cases as a percentage of their firm's workload every year.

As for the issue of scale costs, there is, in fact, already an excellent set of scale costs for Supreme Court matters which was introduced on June 1, 2015, in the Appendix G of the Supreme Court Practice Directions, and which has substantially reduced uncertainty and the amount of time spent on arguments, as well as gained widespread acceptance among practitioners. I suggest we use that as a starting point in further discussions on quantum.

Josephine Chong Siew Nyuk (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2018, with the headline 'Scaling costs not best way to make justice system accessible to all'. Print Edition | Subscribe