It goes without saying that justice, as a foundational ideal, needs to be within everyone's grasp if it is to not ring hollow. The means to that end, however, continues to test society in the sphere of legal relations. To put it baldly, when money is a prerequisite of a rule-bound process, a well-off litigant stands at a distinct advantage against someone of modest or no means - as the latter might well be cowed into either withdrawing or settling out of court for much less.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had put forth proposals, this time last year, aimed at making justice more accessible. These included curbing high fees, creating less adversarial and more affordable avenues to resolve family matters, and making legal costs more transparent. Gratifyingly, steps have been taken since then, like the setting up of the Family Justice Courts and the streamlining of civil processes in State Courts. The latter is expected to lower costs by reducing laborious steps and cat-and-mouse tactics.
Of all the cost factors, it's the fee of legal counsel that tends to hog the limelight. Examples are the $4 million in lawyers' fees arising from the Horizon Towers collective sale appeal and the millions in legal fees associated with Dr Susan Lim's professional misconduct hearing. In the latter case, what left a strong impression on the public was the court's drastic trimming of one large legal bill - from $900,000 to $180,000.
Of course, the court's assessment of party-party costs must be separated from the reasonableness of solicitor-client costs. The latter reflects specialised skills and knowledge sought by the client, the complexity of an issue, the value of disputed property as well as the labour, time and urgency demanded - some of the relevant factors listed by the Law Society.
Nonetheless, the public would expect lawyers to make every effort to contain costs. This obligation arises from the high standing of the profession, the monopoly it enjoys and the ethical standards it must uphold. Legal costs ought to be "truly proportionate", as the CJ noted, to the purposes to be achieved, the sum at stake and any larger issues invoked.
There has been further discussion of late on the use of contingency fees to help curb costs - by allowing lawyers to take a regulated percentage of damages, if awarded. The scheme has merit. A conditional fee arrangement, unlike a time-based one, can help ensure that exertions are efficiently directed for the benefit of clients, and worthy causes of indigent litigants are supported.
Justice demands that those who are forced to turn to the courts are not obliged to pay an arm and a leg to pursue their legal rights.