The Civil Litigation Process in Singapore22.09.2022
Matters involving the law are generally classed as either civil or criminal in nature. Civil cases tend to deal with relationships between people, or people and businesses. Criminal matters, however, tend to relate to individuals being prosecuted by a lawyer acting for the state, about criminal matters.
In other words, civil litigation can be defined as legal action to resolve disputes between a plaintiff (the party claiming they were wronged) and a defendant (who will defend the claim), outside the scope of criminal law.
When a court process is used to settle a matter it is called litigation. Alternatives include arbitration, mediation or neutral evaluation. Litigation can happen in both civil and criminal cases.
In Singapore, civil procedures are governed by the Rules of Court. There are specific rules for certain proceedings, such as winding up companies or getting a divorce.
Process before beginning civil litigation
Before starting court action, parties will usually attempt to settle the matter by sending a letter of demand to the other party, asking them to comply in a specific way, or face legal action. This letter of demand is not mandatory in Singapore, but it gives parties a chance to settle things without long and expensive litigation.
If this step fails, and the defendant refuses to comply with the demands, then legal proceedings can be started by the claimant.
Which court should a claim be filed in?
There are several different courts in Singapore; the Supreme Court (High Court and Court of Appeal), and State Courts (magistrates and District Courts). Which court decides your matter will depend on the nature of your claim, and the amount:
- Magistrates Court: claims up to $60,000.
- District Court: claims between $60,000 and $250,000.
- High Court: claims of more than $250,000.
- Small Claims Tribunal: claims of up to $20,000, which may be raised to $30,000 with the permission of the court and if both parties agree.
If the parties agree, the claim may also be limited to $250,000 so that it can be heard in the District Court.
Time limits to commence civil proceedings
The Limitation Act sets out time limits. There is no single limit; it will depend on the type of lawsuit and which court it is heard in. For instance, most torts and contractual claims have a 6-year time limit. For personal injury claims, that limit is 3 years from the date of injury, or from the date of knowledge of the injury.
Disputes in the Small Claims Tribunal have a limit of 2 years from the date that the right to claim arose.
Beginning Civil Litigation
Civil proceedings are begun in Singapore by filing a writ of summons, or an originating summons. The purpose of this is to give the defendant notice of the action.
Most civil claims begin by the filing of a writ of summons; it is used wherever there is a dispute of fact between parties. If there is a dispute as to the law, or a question of interpreting a legal clause or document and there is no dispute of fact, then the action should begin with the originating summons. Commencement via originating summons is also required by some statutes.
The defendant must be personally served with the summons, unless the court agrees it can be served on another party. The court may allow the summon to be served on someone outside of Singapore, if that is where the relevant party is located.
There are set time limits for serving the summons – 6 months in Singapore (apart from admiralty proceedings which are 12 months), and 12 months outside of Singapore.
Within 8 days of this service, the plaintiff must then file a memorandum of service – a crucial part of the process if you want to apply for a default judgement later on.
Defending civil claims – memorandum of appearance
A defendant who wishes to defend the claim must file a memorandum of appearance with the court, not more than 8 days from the date they received notice. This lets the court and the plaintiff know that the defendant will appear in court to contest the claim.
No appearance – default judgement
A defendant who doesn’t wish to defend the claim does not need to appear at court of file a memorandum of appearance. However this is a risk, because in the absence of the defendant, the plaintiff can apply for a default judgement.
A written statement of a party’s case is known as a pleading, and it sets out the facts they will rely for their claim or defence. It lets both parties know of the other’s position so they can make necessary preparations. Identifying exactly what is in dispute saves both time and money during a trial.
Pleadings will usually include:
- Statement of claim
- Counterclaim or defence
- Reply, or reply and defence of counterclaim
A statement of claim is commonly served along with the writ of summons, and sets out the material facts which make up the plaintiff’s case. It has to specify the remedy or relief that the plaintiff is seeking.
Where a statement of claim is not included in the writ of summons, it must be filed and served on the defendant within 14 days of the memorandum of appearance being filed by the defendant.
A defendant wishing to defend a case must file and serve their defence within a set time period. They may file and serve a counterclaim if they feel they have such a claim or remedy entitlement. This form of pleading is known as defence and counterclaim.
In the statement of claim, the defence must respond to the allegations, setting out the material facts that their defence will rely on.
Then the plaintiff has 14 days to reply, from the date the defence was served.
Are pleadings amendable?
Yes – parties can normally amend their pleadings one without having to seek the court’s permission, before the close of pleadings.
Depending on what stage the proceedings are at, a party may withdraw their proceedings, though they may need the court’s permission.
Pleadings are not filed in matters that start with an originating summons.
Adding a third party
The Rules of Court allow the defendant to apply to add a third party to the case. This happens if the defendant feels that party should contribute to the plaintiff’s claim, or provide indemnity to the defendant.
This is known as third-party proceedings. Here, the defendant is treated as the plaintiff and the third party as the defendant. In theory, the original plaintiff does not have much to do with third-party proceedings.
Directions to further prepare for trial and discovery
If proceedings have been exchanged and closed, an order to further prepare for trial will be made. Usually, summons for directions is given at pre-trial conferences. Directions are given to parties, including which documents to file, which evidence to present, the number of witnesses to be called and also regarding specific evidence like medical reports, photos or expert witnesses.
It is at this stage that most of the evidence is ‘put on the table’. Parties are allowed to object to certain documentary evidence being used – but they must include the reason for their refusal.
Court-ordered dispute resolution – the last step before trial
In order to encourage the parties to settle and avoid a costly or lengthy trial, the judge may order dispute resolution for the parties, during the summons for direction phase. Methods of court dispute resolution include arbitration, mediation or neutral evaluation. State courts have dispute resolution centres.
During the pre-trial phase, sworn witness statements, or affidavits or evidence in chief, have to be prepared, filed and exchanged. These statements make up the witness’s testimony, and each witness may be cross-examined on the content of these statements.
Each party is allowed to file interlocutory applications in the pre-trial phase, in order to further prepare for trial. Interlocutory applications may include:
- Application to amend filed documents – for example, the statement of claim or defence.
- Application for document discovery – to order a party to disclose relevant documents in their possession.
- Application for interlocutory injunction – directing the other party to do something, ro stop doing something, until the trial.
- Application for default judgement – when the other party does not comply with an order of the court.
- Application for summary judgement – where the plaintiff argues the judgement should be given without trial, due to the defendant not having a real defence.
- Application for Mareva injunction – to stop a party from deliberately depleting assets so they can’t be used to satisfy any judgement the court might make against them.
- Application for Anton Pillar order – to allow certain people to enter the party’s property to look for and seize items in order to stop the defendant destroying evidence which could incriminate them.
Several pre-trial conferences may happen during the trial preparation; these confirm that all applications are dealt with prior to the matter being set down for trial.
Parties are encouraged to settle if they can; any party may offer a settlement at any stage of the proceedings. A statutory mechanism to make offers of settlement is given in Order 22A of the Rules of Court. If a party refuses to accept a settlement order and the other party obtains a more favourable judgement than the settlement offer, then the rules make provisions for adverse cost consequences.
Setting down and subpoenas
Following the conclusion of all pre-trial matters, one party (usually the plaintiff) files a request for setting down action for the trial.
Subpoenas are issued, to ensure witness’s attendance. If a witness fails to show, the court will disregard the statement of their evidence-in-chief.
Subpoenas come in different types:
- To attend court to give evidence orally
- To produce documents without having to come to court
- To produce documents and also provide evidence in court.
A subpoena may only be issued once the matter is set down for trial.
The Trial – order of proceedings
Court proceedings are designed so that each party has the opportunity to present their case. Parties are usually represented by lawyers specialising in civil litigation, but a party may choose to represent themselves and litigate in person.
Ordinarily, it is the plaintiff’s lawyers who will open the case, giving an opening address and calling witnesses. The defendant’s lawyer then ha the chance to cross-examine these witnesses. Following that, the witnesses may then be re-examined once more.
The plaintiff will give all their evidence and then close their part of the case.
Then it’s the defendant’s turn – they present their case and call defence witnesses. These are then cross-examined and re-examined too.
Once the defence closes their case, closing statements will be made to the court by both parties. Depending on the complexity of the case, the judge might ask for oral or written closing submissions.
Judgement and orders
The court’s decision may be made immediately after closing arguments, or it may be made later after the case has been adjourned, to give the time to consider the evidence.
In some instances, the court gives judgement on liability but leaves the amount of damages for the assessment of a registrar, which can happen out of court, in chambers. Evidence will be put to the registrar to help determine the amount of damages. In personal injury cases, for example, the court decides on liability but the registrar hears expert medical testimony, reports and the account of the victim, to determine appropriate damages.
As well as granting order to give effect to its judgments, orders may also be made by the court about which party is liable to pay the legal costs of the other party.
Enforcement of judgments
The method of enforcing the judgment will depend on the sort of case it is. Common methods include:
- Writs of execution, of seizure and sale, of possession, and of delivery – where the defendant doesn’t pay their debts in time, the plaintiff can request that the court allows the plaintiff to seize and sell the property of the defendant, to satisfy the amount owed.
- Applying for an examination of the debtor – this will assess what assets are available to settle the debt.
- Winding up applications and bankruptcy.
- Receivership appointments – money is held by the receiver for the judgement creditor’s benefit.
- Garnishee orders – these request a third party owing money to the defendant (judgement debtor) to pay the plaintiff instead (judgement creditor).
It is the right of both plaintiff and defendant to have the judgement appealed to a higher court, in certain circumstances.
Speaking to a lawyer experienced in civil litigation is recommended, as it is a complex process, and you may significantly improve your chances of being successful in a lawsuit.