Contributed By Drew & Napier LLC
The Singapore legal system is based on common law for areas such as contract, equity, trusts and tort law. Statutes have been enacted for areas such as criminal, company and family law.
Judges apply the ratio decidendi (the operative reasons) of decisions of higher courts. Court of Appeal judgments are strictly binding on the High Court, District Court and Magistrates’ Court, whereas English and other Commonwealth decisions are persuasive but not binding. The doctrine of "horizontal stare decisis" – that is, where courts at the same level in the judicial hierarchy are bound by each other’s decisions – is not applicable. However, a court would be hesitant to depart from a line of previous decisions.
The legal system is adversarial and conducted through both written and oral submissions.
The Singapore court system comprises the Supreme Court, state courts and family justice courts.
The Supreme Court consists of the Court of Appeal, High Court, and Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC).
The Court of Appeal hears civil and criminal appeals from the High Court and is the court of final appeal. Court of Appeal hearings usually feature three judges.
The High Court exercises original and appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases.
The SICC is an international division of the Supreme Court with specialist local and international judges. It hears transnational commercial disputes.
The state courts consist of the district courts, the magistrates’ courts, the Coroner’s Court and the Small Claims Tribunal. Magistrates' courts may deal with civil claims of up to SGD60,000. District courts may deal with claims of up to SGD250,000. The Small Claims Tribunal has a claims limit of SGD10,000, which can be raised to SGD20,000 with written consent.
The family justice courts, comprising the Family Court and youth courts, hear the full suite of family-related cases, and probate and succession matters.
Finally, there are smaller tribunals dealing with specialised matters.
Generally, all court proceedings are open to the public. However, interlocutory applications are heard in chambers and are not open to the public.
A party can apply to have a private hearing where it would be in the interests of justice, public security or propriety.
The public may view documents filed for court proceedings by filing a "request to inspect". The Registrar of the Supreme Court decides whether such a request should be granted.
Only advocates and solicitors admitted to the Singapore Bar with a current and valid practising certificate have the exclusive right to appear in the Singapore courts.
A company or a limited liability partnership which is party to court proceedings must be represented by an advocate and solicitor. However, the court may grant leave for an officer of a local company or partnership to act on its behalf.
Foreign lawyers do not have rights of audience. However, foreign lawyers may be permitted to appear as counsel before the SICC in certain cases – for instance, to make submissions on foreign law and if they meet the requirements for registration.
On application, Queen’s Counsel, Senior Advocates and the like can be admitted on an ad hoc basis to argue complex matters.
Previously, third-party funding was prohibited under the common law doctrines of "champerty" and maintenance.
The 2017 amendments to the Civil Law Act abolished the above torts, allowing funding agreements for qualified funders for specified categories of disputes set out in the Act (although these are not necessarily exhaustive).
To qualify, the funder’s principal business must be the funding of dispute resolution proceedings, whether in Singapore or elsewhere, and it must have a paid-up share capital of at least SGD5 million or not less than SGD5 million in managed assets.
Lawyers are obliged to disclose the existence of any funding arrangement and the identity of the funder to the relevant court or tribunal, and to every other party to the proceedings.
Lawyers and law practices are prohibited from holding any financial or other interests in, or receiving commissions, fees or shares of proceeds from the funder they have introduced to their clients or that has funding contracts with their clients.
Third-party funding is allowed for international arbitration and related court or mediation proceedings, and potentially certain insolvency matters.
Third-party funding is available to both plaintiffs and defendants, although in practice funding is unlikely to be available to defendants except where a substantial counterclaim is involved.
There is no minimum or maximum statutory limit on the amount of third-party funding.
A third-party funder will consider funding solicitor-and-client costs, party-and-party costs and other costs incurred in the conduct of the matter.
Contingency fee arrangements are presently not permitted for litigation or arbitration proceedings, although the Ministry of Law is reconsidering this position.
There are no time limits for obtaining third-party funding.
Generally, there are no prerequisites to filing a lawsuit, barring any pre-litigation steps required by a contractual dispute resolution mechanism.
Where both parties are represented by lawyers before proceedings start, the plaintiff’s lawyers must first enquire if the defendant’s lawyers have instructions to accept service on behalf of their client. If the defendant’s lawyers do not confirm that they have such instructions within three working days, the plaintiff’s lawyers can serve the originating process on the defendant directly.
A prospective plaintiff should send a letter of demand before commencing action to give the prospective defendant the opportunity to accede to the claim and potentially avoid litigation.
There are pre-action protocols for medical negligence claims that are brought in the High Court and the State Court, and for some categories of claims brought in the State Court, such as (i) personal injury claims, (ii) non-injury motor accident claims, and (iii) defamation claims. The court will sanction any failure to comply with these protocols unless good reasons are provided.
The Limitation Act applies to civil suits. It provides for many different scenarios, but the more common scenarios are the following:
A limitation period usually commences when the cause of action accrues. For “latent” injuries and damage, the limitation period commences only when the plaintiff has both the right and the knowledge to bring an action.
A defendant must be properly served with an originating process, either personally in Singapore or outside Singapore (with leave of court). Exceptionally, the court may order "substituted service" by other means such as email, Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp, if personal service is impracticable.
After the Singapore Court has been seized of jurisdiction by way of proper service, a defendant may still dispute jurisdiction – for example, where an applicable arbitration or choice of court agreement exists, and/or if the Singapore courts are not the appropriate forum.
Proceedings are either commenced by a Writ of Summons (often accompanied by a Statement of Claim) or by an Originating Summons (accompanied by a supporting affidavit).
Parties may amend originating processes after they have been filed, although leave of court may be required.
Originating processes must be served personally on each defendant, unless alternative means of service are expressly permitted.
Service may be validly effected upon a defendant’s lawyer who accepts service on behalf of his or her client. The court will also give effect to modes of service contractually agreed between parties.
Substituted service and service outside Singapore are addressed in 3.3 Jurisdictional Requirements for a Defendant.
If a defendant intends to contest a writ action, he or she must file a Memorandum of Appearance in the action within the stipulated time. Failure to enter an appearance allows the plaintiff to enter default judgment.
Default judgment is inapplicable for actions commenced by originating summons. The matter proceeds with no opposing party in attendance.
Representative actions are permitted where the claimants or defendants have the same interest in the proceedings. The court retains the discretion to discontinue the proceedings.
No judgment or order can be enforced against any non-party to the proceedings except with leave of court.
Legal practitioners have general duties to inform their clients of the basis on which their fees will be charged, as well as other reasonably foreseeable payments. To the extent possible, estimates of such fees and payments should be provided if requested by clients.
Interim applications can be made before trial. These are not limited to case management issues and can be applications for interim relief, such as freezing injunctions, search orders and sale of perishable property.
A party can apply for early judgment through the summary judgment procedure.
Separately, a party can apply to strike out an unmeritorious claim or defence if it (i) discloses no reasonable cause of action or defence; (ii) is scandalous, frivolous or vexatious; (iii) may prejudice, embarrass or delay the fair trial of the action; and/or (iv) is otherwise an abuse of process.
See 4.2 Early Judgment Applications. Judgment on admission of facts is available where a party has made admissions of fact which the applicant can capitalise on to obtain a judgment or order in its favour. Further, the court has the power to summarily determine any question of law or construction of any document arising in any cause or matter at any stage of the proceedings.
Interested parties may apply by way of a summons supported by an affidavit to intervene in an action and be joined as a party. The intervener must show a direct interest in the subject matter of the action.
A defendant may apply for security for costs by a summons supported by an affidavit. As a minimum, the applicant must demonstrate that the plaintiff:
The court may decline to exercise its discretion to order security for costs where it would not be just to do so.
Where the plaintiff is a corporation, the court may order security for costs if there is credible evidence that it will be unable to pay the defendant’s costs if the defence succeeds.
Costs are entirely at the discretion of the court. Generally, a successful party will ordinarily get its costs unless there are special reasons for not awarding such costs.
The courts can have regard to, inter alia, the scales of costs in the rules of court (ROC) and judge-issued costs guidelines in Appendix G of the Supreme Court Practice Directions.
The court may decide to determine costs at a later stage of the proceedings.
Most interlocutory applications are heard within two to three months after being filed. The applicant can request urgent timelines where circumstances warrant.
In cases of extreme urgency, an applicant may request to have the matter heard ex parte before the duty registrar/duty judge. There are requirements to give notice (to opposing parties/counsel) and all papers and draft orders of court must be ready. Parties who seek urgent relief on an ex parte basis are also under a duty of full and frank disclosure. Material non-disclosure may result in the ex parte order being set aside.
A party usually gives discovery by serving a list of documents in chronological order with a brief description of each document. The opposing party is entitled to inspect and obtain copies of the listed documents.
For general discovery, parties must disclose all documents that are relevant to disputed issues, regardless of whether the documents support or are adverse to the disclosing party’s case.
Parties can apply for specific discovery of documents or categories of documents. The court will order specific discovery only if it is necessary for disposing fairly of the cause or matter.
Unless the SICC or High Court orders otherwise, discovery in SICC cases is governed by its own set of rules, which is similar to international arbitration practice.
In an SICC case, each party provides all the documents on which it relies within the time and in the manner ordered by the SICC. Unlike High Court proceedings, parties in SICC proceedings need not provide general disclosure of both beneficial and self-damaging documents. A party may be required to disclose particular documents upon application by the other party only if they are relevant and material to the requesting party’s case.
A party may apply to court to obtain discovery from a person who is not a party (ie, not a plaintiff or a defendant) to the civil case.
The application should specify the documents sought, and must be served personally on the third party and on every other party to the proceedings.
The supporting affidavit must state the grounds for the application, why the third party is likely to have the requested documents, how the requested documents are relevant to an issue arising in the case, and why it would be just to grant the application.
The discovery process during a civil case comprises two stages: general discovery and specific discovery. These stages are outlined at 5.1 Discovery and Civil Cases.
A party can also seek information by serving interrogatories. Interrogatories are a supplementary form of discovery and assist in the resolution or clarification of issues in dispute by requiring persons to answer questions. The questions must be necessary for disposing fairly of the cause or matter or for saving costs.
There is also a pre-action interrogatory procedure. The applicant must show that the pre-action interrogatory is necessary to ascertain the viability of the contemplated cause of action and that it is just in all the circumstances of the case to grant the order.
A person has the right not to give discovery of documents covered by legal professional privilege, which comprises two categories.
First, legal advice privilege covers any communication made between a client and his or her legal adviser, including an in-house counsel, in the course of and for the purpose of employment of the legal adviser. The privilege extends to information which the legal adviser receives in a professional capacity from a third party and conveys to his or her client.
Secondly, litigation privilege covers information and materials created and collected, at a time when litigation is in reasonable contemplation, for the dominant purpose of the litigation.
In addition to legal professional privilege, a party may rely on other exclusionary rules to withhold disclosure of certain documents. This includes “without prejudice” communications and “marital communications”.
“Without prejudice” communications are statements made by opposing parties (or their solicitors) to each other in the course of settlement negotiations. “Without prejudice” communications may not be disclosed unless both parties consent.
“Marital communications” privilege is a statutory right based on the policy that relationships between spouses ought not to be disrupted. No person who is or has been married can be compelled, or permitted, to disclose any communication made to him or her during marriage by his or her spouse. The communications continue to be privileged even if the marriage comes to an end. Only the spouse who made the communication can waive the privilege.
An injunction is an order of the court requiring a party to do or refrain from doing something. It may be permanent or interim.
A permanent injunction will be granted where the plaintiff’s rights have been infringed and will be further infringed if the injunction is denied and if damages will not be an adequate remedy.
An interim injunction is a protective order to preserve the status quo until the court can fully adjudicate the dispute.
The jurisdiction to grant an interim injunction is based on three fundamental principles.
The first is that it should protect some recognisable right, in respect of which the applicant usually seeks substantive relief.
The second is that an interim injunction does not finally decide the issues in dispute between the parties, but only seeks to protect parties from irreparable harm. The court should take whichever course appears to carry the lower risk of injustice.
The third is that if the court finds in the final judgment that an interim injunction had wrongly prevented a party from exercising his or her rights, the court may seek to restore that party to the position he or she would have been in had he or she not been subjected to a restraint.
The court may grant a variety of interim injunctions. These include:
Paragraph 11 of the Supreme Court Practice Directions deals with applications for interim injunctions outside of the court’s office hours.
If an application for an interim injunction is so urgent it cannot be heard the next working day, counsel can contact the duty registrar, who will arrange for a hearing to take place.
The hearing may take place in court or at any place as directed by the judge or registrar hearing the matter.
The applicant must ensure that all the application papers and the appropriate draft orders have been prepared. If the documents have yet to be filed in court when the counsel seeks an urgent hearing, he or she must undertake to the registrar processing the application to have these documents filed no later than the next working day.
The registrar may also direct counsel to send the application and supporting documents by email if the application is of sufficient urgency.
Counsel must also ensure that all applicable notice requirements are complied with. See 6.3 Availability of Injunctive Relief on an Ex Parte Basis.
All applications, including applications for injunctive relief, should generally be heard inter partes. In exceptional circumstances, injunctive relief can be sought ex parte.
Under paragraph 41 of the Practice Directions, any party applying ex parte for an injunction must give notice to the other concerned parties prior to the hearing. The notice may be given by way of facsimile transmission or telex, or, in cases of extreme urgency, orally by telephone. The notice should inform the other parties of the date, time and place fixed for the hearing and the nature of the relief sought. If possible, a copy of the ex parte summons should be provided.
Notice need not be given if the giving of the notice would or might defeat the purpose of the ex parte application. The reasons for not following the Practice Directions should be clearly set out in the supporting affidavit for the ex parte application.
If any of the other parties are not present or represented at the hearing of the ex parte application, the applicant’s solicitors must inform the court of the attempts that were made to notify the other parties of the application.
The judge hearing the application decides whether it should proceed ex parte, or whether it should be heard inter parte if the case is not sufficiently urgent.
To obtain an interim injunction, the applicant must undertake to the court that it will comply with any order to compensate the respondent for any loss the court might later find that the order for injunctive relief wrongfully resulted in. If the applicant does not give the undertaking, the court will usually refuse the injunction.
Where the applicant provides an undertaking, the court may, in an appropriate case, require the applicant to support his or her undertaking by a payment into court, by providing a bond from an insurance company, or a bank guarantee, or a payment to the applicant’s solicitor to be held by the solicitor as an officer of the court pending further order.
A worldwide Mareva injunction can be granted to restrain a defendant from dealing with assets which are located abroad, within several foreign jurisdictions or where some of the assets are within the jurisdiction and some are abroad.
Injunctive relief in the form of a Mareva injunction can be obtained to restrain a third party from removing or dealing with the defendant’s assets, which are known or believed to be in the hands of a third party, and if there are grounds for believing that the assets may be disposed of to avoid execution.
A party who fails to comply with the terms of an injunction may be in contempt of court, which is punishable by a fine of up to SGD100,000, or imprisonment for up to three years, or both, unless the party shows the non-compliance was wholly or substantially attributable to an honest and reasonable failure to understand the obligation imposed on him or her.
Trials are held in public before a single judge.
The parties will file and exchange the affidavits of the factual and expert witnesses (whose reports will be annexed to their affidavits) well before the trial. Opening statements will be exchanged just before the trial.
The trial judge will normally review these materials before the trial and give appropriate directions for the conduct of the trial.
At the trial, the opening statements are frequently taken to be read, although the court sometimes requests oral opening statements to be made, after which the parties will usually present the evidence for their cases.
Generally, the first party to proceed is the plaintiff, unless the burden of proof in the case lies with the defendant. Witnesses (and their evidence) are admitted by conducting examination-in-chief, during which the witnesses confirm their identities and that the evidence deposed to in their affidavits is accurate. After the completion of the examination-in-chief, the opposing side’s advocate will proceed to cross-examine that witness. A witness who has been cross-examined may be re-examined by the advocate of the party who called him or her, but only on matters that were dealt with in cross-examination. Leading questions may be asked only during cross-examination.
Once the plaintiff’s witnesses have been examined, the plaintiff may close his or her case. If there is more than one plaintiff, they will present their cases in the order in which they appear on the record.
Upon conclusion of the plaintiff’s case, the defendant may elect to submit no case to answer – ie, that the plaintiff has not established a sufficient case for the defendant to answer.
If no such submission is made, the defendant will be called upon to present his or her case. Examination-in-chief, cross-examination and re-examination of the defendant’s witnesses will then take place.
Once all the evidence has been adduced, the defendant will close his or her case.
A judge typically does not interfere with the manner in which a party conducts his or her case; any interference will only arise out of a necessity to ensure that the appropriate trial procedures and rules of evidence are complied with.
At the end of the trial, the trial judge will deliver judgment either immediately or, as is usually the case, reserve judgment to be delivered at a future date. If the judgment is reserved, the trial judge will also usually give directions for the filing of written closing submissions, and written reply submissions. Directions for oral submissions are also sometimes given.
After the commencement of proceedings and before the trial, the court will usually direct the parties to attend a case management conference known as a “pre-trial conference” (PTC) heard by a registrar. The first PTC is usually scheduled within the first six weeks after the filing of the writ.
At a PTC, each party’s lawyers will usually update the registrar on the status of the proceedings, including whether any interlocutory orders are required. At a stage closer to the trial, each party’s lawyers will provide information such as the number of witnesses, the number of days the trial will take and the estimated costs of proceeding to trial. Directions may also be given for parties to exchange lists of issues for expert witnesses.
PTCs may also be conducted by judges (JPTCs). JPTCs are usually scheduled after the completion of discovery and again after the exchange of the affidavits of evidence-in-chief of the witnesses.
Once litigation has commenced, the parties may require a court decision on a variety of matters relating to the conduct of the case, such as an extension of time for filing pleadings or obtaining or summary judgment. To do so, the parties must make an interlocutory application to the court by filing a summons, with the directions or orders needed, and an affidavit setting out the facts and matters supporting the application. Such a summons will be engrossed by the court upon filing. Usually, the hearing date of the application is fixed at the time of its filing and is stated on the engrossed summons. The applicant will then serve the engrossed summons on the respondent(s).
The respondent who wishes to meet the applicant’s case with evidence of his or her own must file an affidavit opposing the application. The applicant will typically be allowed to file a final affidavit in reply.
Interlocutory applications are generally heard in private (ie, in chambers before registrars at first instance), although in some cases they are heard before judges.
In Singapore, jury trials are not available under any circumstances.
The admissibility of evidence is governed by the Evidence Act (Cap 97, 1997 Rev Ed).
Evidence is admissible only if it is relevant, subject to any exclusionary rules. There are a number of exclusionary rules. They include legal professional privilege and without prejudice communications, both of which have been covered above, and hearsay evidence.
Hearsay evidence refers to a person’s assertions made out of court, whether orally or in documentary form or in the form of conduct, which is then tendered to prove the truth of the matters it refers to.
Hearsay evidence is generally inadmissible unless it falls within the scope of the exceptions specified in the Evidence Act. These exceptions include statements relating to the existence of any relationship by blood, marriage or adoption, or a statement that is made by a person who is dead or who cannot be produced as a witness.
Expert evidence is admissible on matters that require specialised knowledge or training which the court does not possess, provided that the expert evidence is sufficiently relevant and will help advance the court’s inquiry into the facts.
Parties may adduce expert evidence from their own expert witnesses.
The court also has the power to appoint an expert. Regardless of whether an expert is appointed by a party or the court, an expert witness’s primary duty is to the court. The expert must provide independent assistance to the court by way of an objective, unbiased opinion in relation to the matters within his or her expertise.
Generally, all trials are held in open court and the public can attend these hearings. PTCs and interlocutory hearings, which are conducted in chambers, are closed to the public.
In certain circumstances, trials may be held in camera (ie, in a court which is closed to the general public). Proceedings where, for example, the maintenance of privacy or secrecy is a primary consideration must be tried in camera. These include matrimonial suits and suits under the Adoption of Children Act.
The court also has a broad discretion and may order a matter to be heard in camera if it is satisfied that it is expedient in the interests of justice, public safety, public security or propriety, or for any other sufficient reason to do so.
Transcripts and Judgments
A copy of every judgment delivered in any cause or matter heard in open court is available for public inspection upon payment of the prescribed fee, and a copy shall be handed to any member of the public upon payment of the appropriate charges.
Where proceedings are heard in camera, any judgment pronounced or delivered in such proceedings shall not be available for public inspection, though the court has the power to allow inspection or copies to be made of the judgment. In practice, written judgments delivered in respect of proceedings heard in camera are sometimes published, but with important details such as the identity of the parties redacted.
The courts adopt an adversarial system (as opposed to an inquisitorial one). The examination and cross-examination of witnesses are primarily the responsibility of counsel.
However, the judge can ask witnesses or counsel questions if, among other things:
An action is commenced by filing a Writ of Summons. Once the writ has been served on the defendant, he or she will have to enter an appearance in the action within eight days of the service of the writ. If the writ is served out of jurisdiction, the defendant will have 21 days to enter an appearance in the action.
The Statement of Claim, which sets out the relevant facts establishing the plaintiff’s claim, may be endorsed on the writ and served together with the writ. Where the writ does not have an endorsed statement of claim, the statement of claim must be filed and served on the defendant within 14 days of the defendant entering an appearance in the action.
Where the defendant has entered an appearance, and intends to defend an action, he or she must enter an appearance and file and serve his or her defence 14 days after the time limited for entering an appearance or after the service on him or her of the statement of claim, whichever is later. If a defendant alleges that he or she is entitled to any relief or remedy against the plaintiff, he or she may file and serve a counterclaim in the same action. In that case, the defendant’s pleading is known as the defence and counterclaim.
A plaintiff may file and serve his or her reply within 14 days after the defence has been served on him or her. Where there is a counterclaim by the defendant, the plaintiff may file and serve a reply and defence to counterclaim or just a defence to counterclaim if there is no reply.
After the pleadings have been filed, pre-trial conferences are held for the court to monitor and manage the progress of the case.
In simple commercial cases, the trial may be held within nine to 12 months from the start of the proceedings. Complex commercial cases can take longer. It can take anywhere from 15 months to three years for a complex case to go to trial.
The duration of the trials also varies, depending on the complexity and nature of the case.
Parties are not required to obtain court approval to settle a lawsuit before trial so long as all parties consent in writing. However, leave of the court is required to discontinue an action if trial has begun or if the action was commenced by originating summons. Leave of court will invariably be granted if parties have reached a settlement. It is also common for the court to make a “consent order” reflecting the main terms of settlement if the parties so wish.
Parties may include confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements, which are enforceable as contractual terms. Permission may also be sought from a judge to seal any court papers to protect the confidentiality of settlements.
For matters settled through mediation, the Mediation Act provides for the confidentiality and inadmissibility of settlement communications, including the mediated settlement agreement.
General contractual principles apply to the enforcement and setting aside of settlement agreements. Settlement agreements which are recorded as consent orders are also enforceable as court judgments or orders.
General contractual principles apply to the setting aside of settlement agreements. Depending on the grounds for challenging a settlement agreement, “without prejudice” communications (see 5.6 Rules Disallowing Disclosure of a Document) may be disclosed.
Other than damages, the courts may grant other forms of relief such as injunctions and specific performance. The courts also have the discretion to grant orders for costs, which are usually awarded to the successful litigant.
Contractual damages aim to place the plaintiff in the same position as if the contract had been performed. While the courts have not foreclosed the possibility of awarding punitive damages for breaches of contract, such a remedy is rarely granted.
Tortious damages seek to restore the plaintiff to the position that it would have been in had the tort not been committed. Aggravated damages may be warranted where a plaintiff had suffered enhanced hurt due to the manner in which the defendant had committed the tort or the defendant’s motive in doing so. Further, punitive damages may be awarded if the defendant displays outrageous conduct.
Subject to the Unfair Contract Terms Act, an aggrieved party’s right to contractual or tortious damages may be excluded or limited by contract.
The courts may award pre-judgment interest for the period between the date when the cause of action arose and the date of the judgment. While the courts may award interest at a different rate, the current default pre-judgment interest rate is 5.33% per annum.
Post-judgment interest is generally payable and is calculated from the date of judgment to the date that the judgment is satisfied. The current default interest rate is 5.33% per annum. The courts may award interest at a different rate, subject to a maximum rate of 6% per annum (Order 42, Rule 12 of the ROC), or enforce an interest rate agreed between the parties.
A judgment creditor may choose among a range of options for enforcing a judgment, including writs of execution (which include writs of seizure and sale, writs of possession and writs of delivery), garnishee orders, and appointments of receivers by way of equitable execution. Further, a judgment creditor may obtain a post-judgment Mareva injunction as an aid to execution if there is a real risk of the judgment debtor dissipating its assets.
A judgment creditor may also seek an examination of the judgment debtor first to determine what property the judgment debtor has and where it is situated.
If the judgment debtor’s conduct or affairs provide probable reason for believing that he or she is likely to leave Singapore, the court may order that the judgment debtor be arrested and brought before the court for examination regarding his or her ability to pay the judgment.
Foreign judgments may be enforced in Singapore by the following means:
The statutory regime for reciprocal recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments has been consolidated under the REFJA with effect from 3 October 2019. The REFJA applies to judgments from Hong Kong and has been expanded to include judgments from Commonwealth jurisdictions which formerly fell under the Reciprocal Enforcement of Commonwealth Judgments Act (Cap 264, 1985 Rev Ed) (RECJA). The RECJA will cease operation once the Reciprocal Enforcement of Commonwealth Judgments (Repeal) Act 2019 (No 24 of 2019) comes into force. The scope of judgments that may be recognised under the REFJA has also recently been expanded. While the precise scope of enforceable judgments depends on the reciprocal agreement with the individual foreign country, the following judgments may now be recognised under the REFJA:
A REFJA application must be made within six years after the date of the judgment. The judgment creditor may issue execution on a registered judgment after registration has been duly made, the judgment debtor has been notified, and the period within which an application may be made to set aside the registration has expired.
The CCAA currently applies to judgments from 31 jurisdictions, including European Union countries. Where the requirements set out in the CCAA are met, the Singapore Court must recognise and enforce a foreign judgment, subject only to limited exceptions within the CCAA.
Where legislation is inapplicable, a judgment creditor may bring a common law action for recognition and enforcement of a foreign judgment by seeking summary judgment on the basis of the foreign judgment within six years of the date of the judgment. A foreign judgment is enforceable if it is a final and conclusive judgment for a definite sum of money granted by a court of competent jurisdiction. It would not be enforced only if it can be shown that the foreign judgment was procured by fraud, its enforcement would be contrary to public policy, or the proceedings in which the judgment was obtained were contrary to natural justice.
The High Court has the jurisdiction to hear criminal appeals from the district courts, magistrates’ courts, family courts and youth courts. It may also hear civil appeals from the family courts, district courts and magistrates’ courts, and other tribunals as may be prescribed by written law – for example, the Employment Claims Tribunal.
Restrictions on the matters that may be brought before the Court of Appeal are set out in Section 34 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap. 322, 2007 Rev Ed) (SCJA) and its Fourth and Fifth Schedules.
The Fourth Schedule sets out orders which are non-appealable, including orders giving unconditional leave to defend and orders setting aside unconditionally a default judgment.
The Fifth Schedule sets out orders which are appealable only with leave. These include orders such as orders for security for costs and orders refusing a stay of proceedings. Leave is generally required to bring appeals before the Court of Appeal unless the amount in dispute or the value of the subject matter before the High Court exceeds SGD250,000.
Parties before the District Court or Magistrates’ Court may appeal to the High Court without leave if the amount in dispute, or the value of the subject matter before the lower courts, exceeds SGD60,000. This is subject to the exceptions set out in the Third Schedule of the SCJA.
Parties seeking to bring an appeal from the state courts or from the High Court must file and serve a notice of appeal. At the time of filing the notice of appeal, the appellant must provide security for the respondent’s costs of the appeal. The notice of appeal must be filed and served within 14 days from the date of the judgment or order to be appealed in appeals from the state courts, and within a month for appeals from the High Court.
If leave is required to appeal, the appealing party must file its application to the lower court within seven days from the date of the judgment or order. If leave is refused by the lower court, the appealing party must file the application to the higher court within seven days of the date of the refusal. A party who has obtained leave to appeal must file and serve a notice of appeal from the date leave is given within the relevant time as stated above.
All registrar’s decisions are appealable to a judge of the High Court in chambers without leave. A Notice of Appeal has to be filed within 14 days of the decision and must be served on the other parties within seven days of its being issued.
Appeals before the Singapore Courts do not operate as a stay of proceedings.
Standards of Review
An appellate court generally rehears the case on the documents. It will correct any misapplication of the law but will not ordinarily disagree with the trial judge’s findings of fact. It is entitled to reverse the trial judge’s findings of fact only when they are manifestly wrong, and any advantage which the trial judge enjoyed by having seen and heard the witnesses is not sufficient to explain his or her conclusion.
An appellate court may intervene where the inferences drawn by a trial judge are not supported by the facts on record, and may assess the credibility of witnesses based on (i) internal inconsistencies in their testimony or (ii) the external inconsistency between their evidence and the extrinsic objective facts.
For appeals from the registrar’s decisions to a judge in chambers, the judge is to decide such appeals as though the matter is before the court for the first time.
New Points on Appeal
An appellate court would only allow a new point to be argued in exceptional circumstances, and a party wishing to introduce a new point should clearly state so in its appeal. An appellate court would not decide in favour of an appellant on a ground put forward for the first time on appeal unless it is satisfied beyond doubt that it has before it all the facts bearing upon the new contention, and that no satisfactory explanation could have been offered by the persons whose conduct is impugned.
New Evidence on Appeal
New evidence may only be admitted on appeal (with leave of the Court of Appeal) if the party can show that the evidence could not have been obtained with reasonable diligence for use at the trial, that the evidence would probably have an important influence on the result of the case, and that the evidence is presumably to be believed. The court may also admit new evidence if the evidence relates to matters which have occurred after the date of the decision from which the appeal is brought and that such evidence materially affects the basis of the earlier decision.
Aside from matters such as obtaining leave and the requirement to provide security for costs above, there are no general conditions imposed by the court on granting appeals.
An appellate court has extensive powers when granting orders after hearing an appeal. It may give any judgment, make any order which ought to have been given or made, make such further orders as the case may require, and even order a new trial. These orders may be granted in favour of a party notwithstanding that no notice of appeal has been given in respect of any particular part of a decision, or by that particular party to the proceedings. The court’s powers are not restricted by any interlocutory orders which have not been appealed against.
Two sets of costs are relevant: party-and-party costs (payable between parties to litigation), and solicitor-and-client costs (payable by parties to their solicitors). Costs are typically paid by the losing party to the prevailing party. The quantum of costs payable may be determined by parties’ agreement or determined by the court in taxation proceedings.
In taxation proceedings, party-and-party costs are typically taxed on the standard basis, which means that a reasonable amount in respect of all costs reasonably incurred would be granted, and any doubts as to whether the costs were reasonably incurred shall be resolved in favour of the paying party. Solicitor-and-client costs are typically taxed on the indemnity basis, which also means that a reasonable amount in respect of all costs incurred would be granted, but that any doubts are to be resolved in favour of the receiving party. Costs assessed on the indemnity basis are typically about one-third more than costs assessed on the standard basis.
Where the receiving party is a litigant in person, the court may allow such costs as would reasonably compensate the litigant for the time expended by him, together with all expenses reasonably incurred.
The court takes into account all the circumstances of the case, including a party’s conduct in the course of the proceedings, the complexity of the matter and the difficulty of the questions involved.
Costs carry interest at the rate of 5.33% per annum from:
Singapore offers a suite of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) is the most preferred arbitration institution in Asia, and the third-most preferred arbitration institution worldwide, behind only the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA).
Mediation has similarly grown in prominence in the Singapore legal landscape, with the establishment of mediation institutions such as the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC), the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC), the Singapore International Mediation Institute (SIMI), and the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution (SCCDR).
Hybrid arbitration and mediation options are also available in Singapore, whereby parties to an arbitration reference to first engage in mediation, and record any settlement reached as a consent award in the arbitration. Parties may then continue with arbitration if they fail to reach a settlement (ie, Arb-Med-Arb procedure).
ADR is an integral part of the Singapore courts’ procedural framework. Courts may take into account a party’s unreasonable refusal to participate in ADR in apportioning costs between the parties.
The Supreme Court Practice Directions provide that parties may make formal offers for engaging in ADR, and the court may give directions for the adjournment of pending proceedings if the parties are willing to attempt ADR.
The state courts integrate ADR services into their dispute resolution framework through the SCCDR. Appropriate matters (such as non-injury motor accident cases, personal injury cases and medical negligence cases) before the state courts will be automatically fixed for ADR at the SCCDR.
Singapore lawyers are compelled (by rules on legal professional conduct) to advise their clients on the use of ADR where appropriate and evaluate the use of ADR processes with a client.
Singapore has also sought to make ADR a more attractive option for dispute resolution by enhancing the enforceability of mediated settlements, through making mediated settlement agreements enforceable in the same manner as a court judgment or order under the Mediation Act. The recently signed United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation also provides for the direct enforcement (and execution) of mediated settlement agreements across signatory countries.
Various institutions in Singapore provide a range of ADR services. The main arbitration institution in Singapore is the SIAC, which administers both international and domestic cases. The ICC has also set up a case-management office in Singapore.
Private mediation service providers include the SMC and the SIMC. There are also bodies providing mediation services for specific disputes, such as the Community Mediation Unit, the Consumers Association of Singapore and the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management.
While parties may choose to implement either framework, the default position is that domestic arbitrations are generally governed by the Arbitration Act (Cap 10, 2002 Rev Ed) (AA), and international arbitrations are governed by the International Arbitration Act (Cap 143A, 2002 Rev Ed) (IAA). Both sets of legislation are based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration (Model Law). The 1958 Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) has been enacted into Singapore law (the Second Schedule of the IAA).
A court may refuse to refer a matter to arbitration where the subject matter of a dispute is non-arbitrable. A dispute is non-arbitrable where its subject matter is of such a nature as to make it contrary to public policy for that dispute to be resolved by arbitration. For instance, criminal offences are non-arbitrable.
The courts have the power to set aside awards in respect of arbitrations seated in Singapore only in the limited circumstances set out in the AA and the IAA. The courts will not set aside arbitral awards from non-Singapore-seated arbitrations. In determining challenges to arbitral awards, the Singapore courts adopt a policy of minimal curial intervention and will adhere to the narrow bases for challenging arbitral awards expressly set out in the AA and the IAA.
A party seeking to set aside an award must make an application to do so within three months of receipt of the reward, or the date on which a tribunal disposes of a request to correct or interpret an award or make an additional award.
The courts have more extensive powers in respect of AA-governed arbitrations than IAA-governed arbitrations, and may hear an appeal on a question of law.
A party seeking to enforce an arbitral award may do so by applying to the High Court of Singapore for leave to enforce the award in the same manner as a judgment or order of the court. This application must be made within six years from the time that the applicant becomes entitled to enforce the award. The grounds for resisting enforcement of the award are similar to those for the grounds for setting it aside.
The Singapore Ministry of Law and the Supreme Court launched a public consultation on 26 October 2018 on proposed reforms to the civil justice system. The proposed reforms are wide-ranging and are intended to transform the litigation process in Singapore.
It is unclear at this point if all or part of the proposed reforms will be adopted and when these will come into force.
The Singapore courts continue to operate and hear matters in spite of COVID-19, save for a period between 5 April 2020 to 1 June 2020 when Singapore had a nationwide “circuit-breaker” and the courts heard only essential and urgent matters.
Non-essential and non-urgent court hearings resumed on 8 June 2020 and are largely conducted via videoconferencing. Physical hearings are conducted where videoconferencing is not practicable or otherwise necessary.