29 September 2021
On 14 September 2021, the Courts (Civil and Criminal Justice) Reform Bill (“Bill”) was passed in Parliament.
In his second reading speech on the Bill, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong explained that the Bill will support the digital transformation of the courts and the implementation of the new Rules of Court, provide a statutory framework for the Attorney-General (“AG”) to intervene in court proceedings, enable courts to grant freestanding interim relief, and harmonise and enhance the court processes.
Digital transformation of the courts
The Bill will enact a permanent framework to facilitate the use of technology in court proceedings. Key features include the following:
- Remote hearings: The courts will be empowered to conduct hearings remotely, using appropriate electronic means such as live video-link.
- Documents-only hearings: The courts will be empowered to decide any matter based on written submissions and documents tendered by the parties, without any oral hearing.
- Asynchronous hearings: The Bill will make clear that parties can address the court and make their arguments via an “asynchronous” exchange in appropriate cases.
In considering how proceedings should be conducted, the court will consider the facts and circumstances of each case, and ensure that proceedings are conducted in a manner that is fair to all parties.
The Bill will also update the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act to ensure consistency in the way physical and remote court proceedings are treated. Thus, unauthorised recordings of court proceedings which are conducted by electronic means, or publication or transmission of such proceedings, will constitute contempt of court.
Supporting the implementation of the new Rules of Court
Simplifying court terminology
The Bill will simplify court terminology to ensure that the laws are accessible to the public and easy to understand by modernising archaic Latin terms and technical legal jargon across the statute books.
Power to order parties to attempt amicable resolution
The Bill will empower the courts to order parties to attempt amicable resolution before continuing with litigation.
Statutory right for AG to intervene in court proceedings
The Bill will amend the Attorney-General (Additional Functions) Act to provide a statutory framework for the AG to intervene in court proceedings to fulfil his duty as guardian of the public. The framework is as follows:
- The AG may apply to the court for permission to intervene in any court proceeding, if he is of the opinion that the proceedings raise a question of public interest, and the intervention is necessary in the public interest.
- If the court is satisfied that the AG has adequately set out the reasons in support of the application, the AG is then made a party to the proceedings.
In deciding whether to grant permission, the court does not, at that stage, enquire into the merits of the AG’s application or opinion.
- An existing party to the proceedings may still apply thereafter to set aside the intervention on the basis that this would be in the interests of justice. But pending the resolution of the setting aside application, the AG remains a party to the proceedings. This ensures that proceedings do not come to a standstill, once an application to set aside is made.
- The court has the power to order costs for or against the AG, as it thinks fit.
Freestanding interim relief
The Bill will empower the General Division of the High Court (“General Division”) to grant interim relief in aid of foreign court proceedings, even where there are no substantive proceedings in Singapore.
The Bill also introduces provisions to harmonise and enhance the court process in the following ways:
Harmonising and enhancing the court process
- Summary dismissal: Currently, the Court of Appeal and the Appellate Division have powers to summarily dismiss unmeritorious appeals. The Bill will introduce amendments to empower the General Division, the State Courts, and the Family Courts to also summarily dismiss appeals that arise from the lower courts, or from a decision of the Registrar.
- Agreements not to appeal: The Bill aligns the position across all the courts for agreements not to appeal by introducing a clear and simple framework that parties may use to restrict their right of appeal.
- Flexibility to adjust size of coram: Currently, proceedings in the General Division are usually disposed of by a single Judge. The Bill allows the Chief Justice to convene a coram of three or more Judges to hear any civil or criminal matter before the General Division, if he considers appropriate. This may be the case where, for example, there are novel or important questions affecting the public interest.
- Proceedings under Arbitration Act and International Arbitration Act to be heard in private: It is common for parties involved in proceedings under the Arbitration Act and the International Arbitration Act to make applications for the matter to be heard in private. Given that these applications relate to arbitrations, such applications are often allowed by the court. To better reflect prevailing practice and streamline the process for parties, the Bill will amend both Acts to provide that proceedings under these Acts are to be heard in private by default, unless the court orders that the proceedings be heard in open court.