Judges set to get bigger say in civil disputes to ensure efficient resolutions at a reasonable cost

The proposals also seek to streamline court procedures for most civil cases into a default track, with flexibility for modifications when necessary. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Wide-ranging changes have been proposed to give judges a bigger say in the civil litigation process so as to ensure that disputes are resolved efficiently and at a reasonable cost.

The proposals also seek to streamline court procedures for most civil cases into a default track, with flexibility for modifications when necessary.

These recommendations, made by two high-level committees after more than two years of discussions, were put up for public consultation on Friday (Oct 26).

In January 2015, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon announced the setting up of the Civil Justice Commission to look at ways to modernise the litigation process and to simplify rules by eliminating procedural steps that waste time and incur costs.

The Civil Justice Review Committee was set up in May 2016 by the Ministry of Law. Its task was to make recommendations on enhancing judicial control over the court process, professional training and public education to support the recommendations, and a review mechanism.

In the consultation paper, it is proposed that judges be granted greater control and flexibility over proceedings, instead of letting parties determine the pace and intensity.

Recommendations have been made to simplify and speed up applications and appeals on procedural matters, so the cases can move quickly to the main battle on the merits.

It is also proposed that the court should also be allowed to determine the number of applications that parties can file.

This is aimed at minimising the practice of lawyers seeking to amend pleadings very close to the start of the trial, which results in a waste of trial time.

Reforms are also tabled to the production of documents by parties, which takes up a "disproportionate" amount of time, energy and costs.

It is recommended that the general position will be for parties to produce the documents that they are relying on for their case, and request specific documents from the other party where necessary.

When expert evidence is necessary, the general position will be for a common expert to be used, although the court may allow parties to use their own experts in special cases.

Changes are also proposed to the legal costs framework, the most dramatic being the introduction of scale costs.

This system emphasises the principle that in general, solicitor-and-client costs - which a litigant pays his lawyer - should be equal to party-and-party costs, which the losing party pays the winning party to defray his legal expenses.

Such changes to the costs framework would signal clearly to parties that there is a fixed price the moment they decide to resolve the dispute in court.

This allows them to weigh the consequences and decide whether it is worthwhile to incur the legal costs, according to the consultation paper.

It would also incentivise lawyers to resolve the dispute quickly and obtain the fixed price for less time and effort, so that they can take on more cases.

The public consultation paper is available on the Law Ministry's website. Feedback is to be submitted by Nov 30.

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