SINGAPORE: The overarching theme of the Subordinate Courts Workplan seminar this year is to make it easier for the public to get legal help and information.
These include the Primary Justice Project to have a team of lawyers who will provide basic legal services to the public, coming up with guide books on motor vehicle accident scenarios, and simplifying the process for minor civil cases.
The initiatives point towards one thing — settling disputes out of court so as to save time and costs.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon laid out the Subordinate Courts’ vision to tackle these challenges in his first work plan keynote address, which aims to enhance justice.
He said: "The inadequacy of information can be an impediment to parties, lawyers and courts choosing the course of action that would most expediently, cheaply and amicably resolve the disputes at hand. The higher the cost of litigation, the less accessible will be justice that is dispensed in the courts."
A key initiative — the Primary Justice Project — is where the courts will work with the Law Society to build a team of lawyers who will provide basic legal services at a fixed fee.
These primary justice lawyers will then be able to refer cases to amicable dispute resolution organisations for early resolution, before they get to court.
While details are not known as representatives from Law Society and Subordinate Courts have yet to discuss this, the primary justice model will mean that a greater number and variety of disputes can be resolved outside the court system.
Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming said: "We haven’t really quite decided on how many lawyers we will be choosing or appointing or qualifying for this particular project. I think obviously, the idea is to train as many lawyers who want to be involved in this particular project and really, to have the word that there are ways in which you can get your problems solved, before going to court. It’s still too early in the day to know how popular this will be among the lawyers, but certainly the momentum is there. We will train as many as required."
To improve resolution of family disputes, which can be emotionally and financially draining, the courts, together with the Law Society and Singapore Mediation Centre, will promote collaborative law.
This is a team—based approach where parents, lawyers, accountants and child psychologists work together to solve issues.
Motor accident claims comprise 30 per cent of civil cases, so the courts will publish a quick reference guidebook to help road users, insurers and motor workshops make informed decisions.
The Chief Justice noted that ultimately many cases will end up in court.
He said more support will be made available to witnesses in criminal cases to help them familiarise with court proceedings.
Recognising that a significant proportion of court users are not represented legally, he said the Civil Justice Division will make available tool kits on two types of hearings — examinations of judgement debtors and interpleader summonses.
A judgement debtor is the losing party which the court orders to pay damages, while interpleader summonses refers to an action by which a person who claims a right to property asks the court to determine ownership.
An integrated call centre will also be established to provide better support to the layman.
In the last five years, the Night Courts saw an annual average of 184,000 minor cases such as littering and parking fines.
The Criminal Justice Division is looking into how it can allow offenders to compound minor regulatory offences on the day of the court hearing.
To cope with the large volume of these cases, the courts is also exploring the possibility of allowing offenders to plead guilty using smartphones and personal computers through mobile AXS.
Chief Justice Menon mentioned earlier this year that nine in 10 cases heard by the Civil Justice Division involve sums of up S$60,000.
The Chief District Judge has been tasked to study ways to create a new and simpler process for these cases.
To expedite matters, the Chief Justice said the Civil Registry will pilot the hearing of some subcourt cases via smart phones.
The Subordinate Courts is also working with the Law Ministry to discuss the possibility of renaming it to "State Courts of Justice".
They are also looking at having judicial officers wear robes in open court hearings.
"The robes are now at the design stage and the wearing of robes is expected to be implemented in the course of this year," said Chief Justice Menon.
Lawyer Subhas Anandan said: "What stood out for me was that the real concern being shown by the courts is to look after the interests of the poor man. I think that will be something that you can really value because most of the litigants are poor people and here, there’s a special effort to look after their interests, to make things easier for them."
The volume of civil cases rose from about 73,200 in 2011 to 73,800 last year. Meanwhile, the number of criminal cases went up to 255,000 in 2012, from 242,000 from 2011.
In conjunction with the work plan seminar, the Community Justice Centre, which provides legal and financial assistance to litigants, was also officially opened on Friday.
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