Chief Justice moots unifying tribunals to improve accessibility, efficiency

A unified and coherent system could enhance accessibility by having standardised rules. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A team from the State Courts is looking into how the standards of diverse tribunals can be raised by organising them into a coordinated network, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said on Tuesday (April 26).

For ordinary people, tribunals such as the Small Claims Tribunals and Employment Claims Tribunals are often their only point of contact with the justice system, he noted.

A unified and coherent system could enhance accessibility by having standardised rules and could also unlock economies of scale in operational and administrative functions, he said.

Chief Justice Menon was setting out his vision for a coordinated and networked system of tribunals on the first day of an inaugural conference aimed at raising the standards and quality of tribunal practice.

The two-day virtual conference, jointly organised by the State Courts and the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL), features international and local speakers from the judiciary and tribunal communities.

Unlike a court hearing, tribunal proceedings are conducted in a more informal manner with simplified, judge-led processes, said a joint statement by the State Courts and the SAL.

The parties are generally not represented by lawyers.

Common disputes include lower-value contractual claims, neighbour conflicts over excessive noise, smell, smoke or light and employment claims.

Tribunals also play a role in determining matters requiring specialised knowledge, such as the Strata Titles Boards and Land Acquisition Appeals Board comprising architects, engineers and lawyers.

In his keynote address, Chief Justice Menon said the tribunals system is an integral and indispensable part of the justice system.

Over the past three years, more than 34,000 claims were heard and dealt with by the three tribunals within the State Courts, he said.

Last year alone, the Small Claims Tribunals handled 9,804 disputes between consumers and suppliers; the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals dealt with 246 disputes between neighbours; and the Employment Claims Tribunal heard 1,192 disputes between employers and employees.

The Chief Justice said the proximity of the tribunals' functions to the problems that people encounter in daily life meant that the quality of the tribunals system will feature as a significant reference point for public assessment of the quality of the justice system.

"To the woman on the street, it matters not whether her complaint is dealt with by a court, a tribunal or a review board," said Chief Justice Menon.

"What matters to her is that her grievance has been dealt with in a manner which is fair and just, and by means which are efficient and accessible."

He said the tribunals system's capacity for specialisation enables tribunals to play a role that complements the more generalist court, but this diversity also challenges efficiency.

Individual tribunals may lack the economies of scale that a single, unified system would enjoy, he said.

This could also pose problems to innovation and reform, as there may not be a sufficiently strong driving force to examine the need for change, he said.

Another challenge is one of accessibility.

"The prospect of navigating an uncoordinated network of tribunals might prove daunting to the uninitiated," he said.

He suggested that the ideal system is one of a "coordinated network of parts".

In time, he said, common terminology or a simplified set of standardised rules can be developed, such that tribunals retain specialist rules but otherwise operate using a broadly consistent basic procedure.

Consolidation, he said, could also facilitate the development of a systematic framework for training and career development.

"This would contribute to the overall quality of tribunal justice and would help to ensure that our tribunals are well equipped to meet the evolving needs they exist to serve."

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