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28 April 2022

On 1 April 2022, the provisions introduced by the Courts (Civil and Criminal Justice) Reform Act 2021 (“Act”) to support the digital transformation of the judiciary, implement civil justice reforms, enable courts to grant freestanding interim relief, and harmonise and enhance court processes, came into force.

Digital transformation of the courts

The Act enacts 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: Parties can address the court and make their arguments via an “asynchronous” exchange in appropriate cases.

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 has also been amended 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.

Civil justice reforms

The Act implements various recommendations of the Civil Justice Commission and Civil Justice Review Committee to reform Singapore’s civil justice system. These include empowering the courts to order parties to attempt to resolve their disputes by amicable resolution, for example through negotiation or mediation.

The remaining proposals have been implemented through the new Rules of Court 2021, which also took effect on 1 April 2022. The Rules of Court 2021 aim to transform the litigation process by modernising it, and enhancing the efficiency and speed of adjudication, while maintaining legal costs at reasonable levels.

The Rules of Court 2021 are underpinned by “ideals” which courts must seek to achieve when making orders or giving directions. All parties have the duty to assist the court and to conduct their cases in a manner which will help achieve the following five “ideals”: (1) fair access to justice, (2) expeditious proceedings, (3) cost-effective work proportionate to the nature and importance of the action, the complexity of the claim as well as the difficulty or novelty of the issues and questions it raises as well as the amount or value of the claim, (4) efficient use of court resources, and (5) fair and practical results suited to the needs of the parties.

Some of the key features of the Rules of Court 2021 are as follows:

  • As far as possible, the court must order a single application pending trial to deal with all matters that are necessary for the case to proceed expeditiously.
  • The court may order affidavits of evidence-in-chief before production of documents.
  • Parties are to inform the court during the Registrar case conference if they intend to rely on expert evidence. The court will not approve the use of expert evidence unless it will contribute materially to the determination of any issue in the case and the issue cannot be resolved.

Freestanding interim relief

The Act empowers 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.

Harmonising and enhancing the court process

The Act also contains provisions to harmonise and enhance the court process in the following ways:

  • Summary dismissal: The Act empowers the General Division, the State Courts and the Family Courts to summarily dismiss appeals that arise from the lower courts, or from a decision of the Registrar.
  • Agreements not to appeal: The Act 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: The Act 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 it appropriate. This may be the case where, for example, there are novel or important questions affecting the public interest.
  • Proceedings under Arbitration Act 2001 and International Arbitration Act 1994 to be heard in private: To better reflect prevailing practice and streamline processes for parties, the Arbitration Act 2001 and the International Arbitration Act 1994 have been amended 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.

Provisions not yet in effect

The Act amends the Attorney-General (Additional Functions) Act 2014 to provide a statutory basis for the Attorney-General to intervene in court proceedings to fulfil his duty as guardian of the public. This provision has not taken effect.

Reference materials

The following materials are available on Singapore Statutes Online sso.agc.gov.sg: