Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Courts (Civil and Criminal Justice) Reform Bill (Bill No. 18/2021)
Sir this Bill will support the digitalisation of proceedings and signal a focus on amicable dispute resolution, among other changes.
The Courts have shown remarkable resilience in the pandemic, adapting to ensure that the judicial system remains open to users and that justice is both done and seen to be done.
I thank the Registry and judicial officers who have worked tirelessly to ensure the continuity and integrity of judicial processes.
I have three points of clarification to make.
Scope of Court’s powers to order parties to attempt amicable dispute resolution
First, I seek clarification on the Court’s new power to order parties to attempt amicable resolution in civil proceedings.
Amicable resolution, such as negotiation and mediation, work best when parties participate in good faith.
Good intentions are critical. This point is underscored in the Rules of the Court. The Rules allow the Court to consider how parties acted during their attempts at alternative dispute-resolution when making its decision on costs orders.
However, with the new Paragraph 23 of the First Schedule of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, the Court can now order parties to attempt an amicable resolution. In such cases the process is no longer voluntary and it raises four sets of questions about effectiveness and implementation.
One, has the Ministry studied what cases are amenable to amicable resolution? Clarity on such situations will help the Court decide in what circumstances to order an attempt at an amicable resolution.
Two, what constitutes an attempt at amicable resolution? Will there be clear requirements to verify such attempts? For instance, it may be useful to require that parties attempting mediation go through an accredited mediator.
Three, how will the Court ensure that parties participate with good faith in attempts at amicable resolution? I can imagine a bad-faith party relying on the Court’s order of amicable resolution as a strategic manoeuvre by parties to prolong litigation and financially wear down opponents.
Four, will there be consequences of non-compliance with such an order?
The Minister’s answers to these questions will help ensure that court orders for amicable resolution do not get undermined by bad-faith actors.
Immunity for Court mediators
My second clarification is on the new section 79, which gives legal immunity to the Court registrars and Court-appointed mediators for actions they take as part of mediation or alternative dispute resolution for the Supreme Court.
The immunity is limited to actions done in good faith, and without any fraud or wilful misconduct.
This appears to mirror section 68(4) of the State Courts Act, which provides similar protections for judicial officers and court-appointed mediators for alternative dispute resolution in the State Courts.
Alternative resolution-processes such as mediation and conciliation require different skills from hearing a case as an adjudicator. These specialised skills are honed by professional mediators and conciliators over years of training and experience. For this reason, judicial officers in the State Courts are required to undergo basic training in mediation.
With the extension of immunity to officers in the Supreme Court, will the Registrar, Deputy Registrars, and Assistant Registrars be required to undergo training in mediation and other alternative resolution processes?
Will there be a minimum requirement that officers and mediators at both the State Courts and Supreme Court must meet?
High-quality training will ensure that alternative resolution is a realistic and cost-effective alternative to litigation. Accreditation is offered by the Singapore Mediation Centre, Singapore International Mediation Institute, and International Mediation Institute, just to name a few.
In addition, who will be the Court-appointed mediators in the Supreme Court? Are there plans to set up an equivalent of the State Courts’ Court Dispute Resolution Cluster in the Supreme Court?
How will the Ministry also support the growth of the private mediation service providers?
Private mediation service providers stimulate our mediation sector with innovation and competition. With the expanded reliance on mediation and similar processes in Singapore, we should integrate and regulate such private providers carefully.
Ensuring integrity of remote hearings
My third and final point is a proposal.
Today’s Bill amends the law to allow various proceedings at the State Courts and Supreme Court to be heard by a live video link.
This is a welcomed move that mirrors changes which have already taken place on the ground due to COVID-19.
However, with more proceedings taking place by live video link, there is also greater risk of issues which may undermine the security and integrity of Court proceedings.
These include, for instance, unauthorised recording of Court proceedings, witness coaching, or poor internet connection affecting the quality of evidence presented to Court.
Will the Court consider implementing a protocol for proceedings conducted by way of a live video link to standardise the way video link hearings are conducted? Such protocol should address issues from the testing of the video link to the arrangements that should be in place for witnesses giving evidence remotely.
Sir, notwithstanding these points, I stand in support of the Bill.
Watch the speech here.