MinLaw removing proposal for fixed legal fees

Panel had suggested pegging fees lawyers can charge to sum claimed in civil suits

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that he has decided to remove the proposal to fix solicitor-and-client costs from the ongoing consultation process. PHOTO: ST FILE

Following feedback from lawyers in private practice, the Law Ministry (MinLaw) is removing the proposed scale costs - or fixed legal fees - lawyers could charge under the proposed civil justice reforms.

This move to peg professional legal fees to the amount claimed in civil suits was among several recommendations of the Civil Justice Commission appointed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in 2015.

The commission was tasked to look at ways to modernise the litigation process and to simplify rules by eliminating procedural steps that waste time and incur costs.

Lawyers who attended a townhall with Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Thursday said the minister told the audience of about 800 lawyers that he has decided to remove the proposal to fix solicitor-and-client costs from the ongoing consultation process.

Although the consultation period is not over, lawyers said Mr Shanmugam indicated the Bar's position on the matter was clear, and that it was also reflected in feedback to MinLaw.

He also told those present that he had spoken to the commission's chairman, who agreed with his approach.

However, the proposal might be resurfaced after the litigation process has been streamlined and not before the Bar has been consulted, the lawyers were also told.

A lawyer who attended the townhall said Mr Shanmugam noted the public and professional interest element in going through with the fixed legal fees proposal was not clear. An example cited by the Law Society was that the scale costs model may result in clients paying a fixed fee even when the case is settled early.

The minister had made clear that CJ Menon, Attorney-General Lucien Wong, Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong and himself were all from the Bar, and want to see it strong and vibrant. The Bench and the Government also share this view.

Lawyers said Mr Shanmugam explained that once all the facts were in, he felt it was the ministry's duty to think it through, and he preferred to be decisive and act promptly.

The townhall session followed one held last week.

Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran said: "Minister's response evidences that the feedback was taken seriously and that the Civil Justice Commission and Civil Justice Review Committee's consultation process is a genuine and sincere one.

"The Law Society welcomes the decisive stance taken on this issue. The episode reflects the constructive relationship between the Law Society, Ministry of Law and the Bench."

Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi found it "extremely heartening that our ministers were so prepared to engage this issue and be genuinely receptive to the different perspectives from the Bar".

"The minister's proactive approach, even before the consultation period is over, shows a willingness to take quick and decisive action when it is called for.

"His clarity and determination to ensure a strong Bar, which is in the public interest, is deeply appreciated by the profession."

The ongoing public consultation exercise on the reports will end on Jan 31 next year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2018, with the headline MinLaw removing proposal for fixed legal fees. Subscribe