SINGAPORE - From April 1, the Singapore courts will allow no more than two lawyers or litigants per party to appear at a hearing, as part of the raft of measures introduced in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in a message to court users and practitioners, said the judiciary will over the next few weeks allow more matters to be heard via tele and video conferencing, as well as written submissions and e-mail.
"The Singapore Judiciary has been actively monitoring the rapidly evolving Covid-19 situation," said Chief Justice Menon, on Thursday (March 26), on the social-distancing measures.
He was speaking on precautionary measures put in place to ensure continuity of court operations and services while safeguarding the health and safety of practitioners, court users and officers of the courts.
If a party requires more attendees than the two permitted into the courtroom and chambers, it should make a request for exemption to the court.
To further promote safe distancing, the courts have also marked out spacing where people queue, spaced out front-line counters and seats in waiting areas and viewing galleries, and limited the number of passengers allowed in each public lift.
In order to minimise the number of persons in the courtroom at any one time, hearings before judges and registrars in the Supreme Court have also been assigned staggered timings whenever necessary to avoid congregation of those attending court.
The State Courts have also staggered the commencement times for court hearings involving numerous attendees, including sessions before the night courts.
The Learning Court and the Judicial Heritage Gallery at the Supreme Court and the Heritage Gallery at the State Courts have been temporarily closed to minimise the number of court visitors.
All guided tours have also been suspended and the libraries in the Supreme Court and State Courts will be also closed until further notice.
The latest measures follow others introduced earlier.
Since Feb 3, all practitioners, court users and visitors have been required to complete a declaration form before they are permitted to enter the court building.
Among other things, an individual will not be allowed into the court building if he is serving a quarantine order, stay-home notice, leave of absence or is feeling unwell and has a fever and/or flu-like symptoms, however mild.
Practitioners and court users who are not permitted to enter the court building to attend scheduled hearings may be able to attend hearings by video conference or otherwise seek an adjournment of the hearing through online channels.
Chief Justice Menon said that over the next few weeks, the Judiciary will implement measures to allow more matters to be heard by teleconference, video conference, written submissions and e-mail.
"We have been exploring these solutions with the Attorney-General's Chambers, the Law Society of Singapore, and the Singapore Prison Service, and are grateful for their support and cooperation," he said.
He further announced various measures implemented, or may soon be implemented, in the Supreme Court, State Courts and Family Justice Courts to enable remote hearings.
These include video-conference hearings for selected matters before the Court of Appeal and High Court, which have been piloted and will be increased incrementally to include trials in the High Court, where appropriate.
Bulk list hearings before judges and registrars have also been split into smaller lists to be heard by different judges and registrars.
Within every list, cases may, where appropriate, be conducted by way of video conference with hearing times staggered with those of cases to be conducted physically. This serves to further minimise congregation of court attendees.
In the Family Justice Courts, remote hearings for case conferences and pre-trial conferences for parties represented by counsel have been piloted.
From March 30, all Family Justice Courts hearings in chambers will be conducted by video conference using Zoom or by way of written submissions for counsel. Litigants-in-person (LIP) may opt to participate in hearings by Zoom.
Also from that date, counsel will attend before the duty judge by video conference using Zoom, while applications involving LIP will also be dealt with by video conference where the users have been trained.
In the State Courts, accused persons who are represented by lawyers need not attend pre-trial conferences or mentions, while video conferencing will be implemented for accused persons in remand.
Applications for adjournments and matters that are not contested will be managed online without the need for parties to attend court.
The majority of applications filed by parties in civil cases will be heard using video-conferencing. All case management hearings and related pre-trial applications will be conducted either by video-conferencing or by e-mail.
In cases where the court does not require the attendance of parties, directions for the conduct of the case will be given through electronic filing or e-mail.
Separately, to ensure business continuity, the judges, judicial officers and staff of the Supreme Court, Family Justice Courts and State Courts have been physically segregated into two teams.
"We have also implemented measures such as telecommuting, staggered working and lunch hours, safe distancing at the workplace, and regular temperature taking. All of these measures are in accordance with the advisories and directives of the Ministry of Health and the Public Service Division," said the Chief Justice.
He added that Covid-19 has caused unprecedented disruptions to the daily routines of institutions and individuals, both in Singapore and around the world.
"This collective challenge demands a collective response, which must begin with our willingness to adapt to change and pursue new solutions. The challenge for the Judiciary is to sustain our justice system while protecting court users, as far as possible, from the risk of transmission.
"We ask for your patience but also your readiness to access the justice system in new and perhaps unfamiliar ways," said Chief Justice Menon.