RESPONSE BY SECOND MINISTER FOR LAW, MR EDWIN TONG SC AT THE COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY DEBATE 2021 (JUDICATURE)
02 Mar 2021 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
A. SUPPORT FOR LITIGANTS-IN-PERSON
- Sir, we share the same concerns, to the extent that we want to support a litigant-in-person’s access to our justice system.
- I am grateful to Ms Lim for recognising some of the efforts to support litigants-in-persons in court.
- Both my Ministry and the Judiciary remain committed to ensuring access to justice for all. Indeed, one of the guiding principles of the Civil Justice Reform Committee established by MinLaw was to advance access to justice for all persons, including litigants-in-person and SMEs.
- Let me highlight some of the other ongoing efforts.
- First, we are simplifying and streamlining legal processes, and designing them with the ultimate end-users in mind.
a. The new Rules of Court, which is scheduled to come into operation later this year, will be written in modern, layman language, easy to understand and to apply.
b. Forms and processes will also be simplified.
c. Cases can take a judge-led approach where appropriate.
- Second, we are leveraging on technology to make legal processes more accessible and convenient, and to channel timely and useful information to those facing legal issues, especially litigants-in-person.
- For example,
a. The Community Justice Centre (CJC)’s Automated Court Document Assembly System (ACDA). This is a free online service that provides step-by-step guidance to generate and file certain court forms, such as applying for deputyship, which a layperson can do on his own. If necessary, court staff will also be available on hand to assist.
- Third, we have taken steps to enhance awareness and also support structures to help litigants-in-person.
a. I spoke earlier about the improvements we are making to legal aid for civil and criminal matters, to support litigants of limited means who are unable to afford their own lawyers.
b. The Community Justice Centre (CJC) also runs one-stop HELP (Helping to Empower Litigants-in-Person) Centres. These provide support services such as:
i. Free on-site legal advice; and
ii. Emotional and psychological support through the Friends of Litigants-in-Person (FLIP) scheme
- Elderly or less well-educated persons ought not feel intimidated or apprehensive of participating in legal proceedings. Ample support is available to help them navigate the court process. If the litigant struggles with English, the Community Justice Centre will endeavour to source for volunteers who are conversant in other languages.
- For litigants-in-person who require a court interpreter, they can make a written request, and the reason to make the written request in advance is the number of interpreters might be limited. If all go for Mandarin speakers or dialect speakers on the same day, there needs to be an allocation, so something in advance will be necessary. But to the extent possible, the courts will allocate the appropriate interpreter to ensure that the process can take place, and that individuals who do not understand English can still continue to take part in the proceedings.
- Certainly, the Judge will not proceed with a hearing if one party is unable to follow the proceedings due to language difficulties.
- Ms Lim asked about the translation of English court documents.
i. For cases before the Community Courts and Tribunals, or cases involving simple court orders, litigants-in-person who need assistance understanding court correspondence may call the courts’ hotline.
- They will be assisted by staff who can explain the content of documents to them, either over the phone, or on occasion, in-person when they meet.
ii. For other cases, if a translation is required, litigants can be referred to third parties who provide translation services.
iii. We are in the midst of exploring with the CDCs, and with Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS), a range of options to assist litigants who need assistance with English Court documents. The avenues being considered are:
- Platforms to explain the documents verbally, in a language that the litigant is comfortable in;
- Providing advice where needed, as you heard Ms Hany Soh explain earlier; or
- In certain cases, assisting with the cost of engaging translation services, where needed.
B. COURTS REMAINED ACCESSIBLE DURING CIRCUIT BREAKER
- Ms Lim raised some questions on the impact of COVID-19 on the courts, and litigants-in-person.
- Some amount of disruption in the past year has been unavoidable, due to the need to combat the spread of COVID-19 to save lives. The pandemic has had an immense impact not only on court processes, but really on all aspects of our daily lives.
- There has been some backlog–
a. The State Courts has lost some hearing days due to the vacation of hearings because of the circuit breaker period.
b. Likewise, the Family Justice Courts, as well as the High Courts.
- Nonetheless, as of present-date, the vast majority of the cases which have been backlogged, have been re-fixed for hearing, and many have already been disposed of.
- As far as remote hearings, and more generally, the increased usage of technology in the courts are concerned, MinLaw and the Courts are keenly sensitive to the needs of court users who are not represented and less technologically inclined. Ms Lim asked whether litigants-in-person have the resources to use Zoom. They can do so on their own if necessary.
a. Alternatively, those who require assistance can receive assistance through telephone, or over the counter, or on live-chat or email communications.
b. Remote hearings serve to make it more convenient for the user, ultimately. But those unable can also ask for their matters to be heard physically, if they are unable to attend remotely.
c. Alternatively, the courts have also set up dedicated video-conferencing facilities in the courts to cater to litigants who themselves lack the means or knowledge to connect via video-conferencing facilities.
- Ms Lim mentioned a specific case on a resident who was looking at quantification of damages.
- This resident can avail himself of any the above measures I’ve mentioned. The litigant can also write to the court Registry to explain the situation, ask for an earlier hearing date – and they can do so through any of the various modes I’ve mentioned.
C. STRENGTHENING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE COMMUNITY DISPUTE RESOLUTION TRIBUNAL (CDRT)
- I spoke earlier about how MinLaw is working with agencies to review the CDMF - Community Dispute Management Framework. Let me address the specific concerns Ms Lim raised in her speech here.
- CDRT cases are heard by District Judges who are designated as Tribunal Judges. They are empowered to handle cases in a less adversarial way, and to ensure that proceedings are simple for litigants to navigate. The CDRT is not bound by the rules of evidence and proceedings are designed to be judge-led. These judges are trained in mediation, and they continue to assist in every case, assess each case and assess the parties for suitability for mediation, even as the case proceeds on an adversarial process.
- If, despite all these measures, after exhausting all attempts at an amicable resolution, there is still a dispute, then the CDRT will have to make a decision, and issue an order. These orders then have to be complied with. Ms Lim spoke about the residents’ concern that they can be ordered to stay out of their homes.
- Let me explain.
- What Ms Lim refers to are Exclusion Orders, which require the respondent to temporarily move out from his place of residence.
a. Such an Order is intended to deal with the most egregious of cases. There have only been two Exclusion Orders since October 2015.
b. The CDRT can only make an Exclusion Order if the respondent has failed to comply with the initial CDRT order, as well as the subsequent Special Direction (two strikes). The timeline in both cases for the EO, roughly, have been about 17 to 18 months, between the initial CDRT order and the Exclusion Order. So, for a period of almost one and a half years, this individual defendant has been disregarding the initial Order, has been heard by the courts, and yet chose not to comply with the initial court order.
- Hence, where the Court has shown evidence that the respondent is recalcitrant, and continues to cause nuisance to his neighbour in contravention of the court order, and remains in contumelious default:
a. It is only right that firm measures be taken to stop the offending conduct and deter the continuation of the nuisance.
b. Even then, there are statutory safeguards. For instance, the CDRT must consider the impact of the order on the contravening party, and any other individual who may be reasonably affected by the order.
- Access to justice, Sir, remains a key cornerstone of the Ministry and we will continue to advance our efforts in this regard. We thank Ms Lim for her feedback and suggestions. Thank you Sir.
Last updated on 02 Mar 2021