Civil Litigation in Singapore

Last updated on August 28, 2014

Litigation refers to the process of taking legal action. Litigation stands in contrast to mediation, neutral evaluation, and arbitration, which are often cheaper, alternative methods of dispute resolution.

Litigation can generally be categorised into civil and criminal categories. In criminal litigation, the State, in the form of the Public Prosecutor, prosecutes a criminal for an offence.

In civil litigation, a party called the plaintiff (or claimant) initiates legal proceedings against a defendant, in order to pursue a claim. Both are generally private parties, and the State is not a party to the proceedings. Claims may include anything from tenancy disputes to corporate disputes.

Prior to legal proceedings

Prior to the commencement of legal proceedings, where the claimant has engaged a law firm to act on its behalf, his lawyer may first send a letter of demand, requiring the other party to comply with the claimant’s demands or risk a lawsuit. Where the demands are not complied with, the lawyer may advise commencing legal proceedings.

Jurisdiction of the Courts

A claimant may institute proceedings in the Small Claims Tribunal (“SCT”) subject to the claim falling within the jurisdiction of the SCT.

Where the dispute falls without the jurisdiction of the SCT, the claimant must commence proceedings in the State Courts (which include the Magistrate Court and the District Court), or the High Court.

The Magistrate’s Court has the power to hear civil actions where the disputed amount does not exceed $60,000. The District Court hears civil actions where the disputed amount does not exceed $250,000. Parties may also agree in writing to have the matter heard by the District Court, even though the sum in dispute exceeds $250,000. Where the plaintiff limits his claim to $250,000, the District Court can also hear the case.

Where the quantum of the claim exceeds the jurisdiction of even the District Court, the action will have to be commenced in the High Court.

How is a civil suit started

A civil action is commenced when a writ of summons (or less commonly, an originating summons) is filed and processed by the Court. Subsequently, the writ has to be served onto the defendant. This service is usually effected by a law firm’s clerk, who delivers the writ in person to the defendant. Writs may be served on a defendant outside of Singapore with the permission of the Court – this means that it is possible to sue a party located outside of Singapore. Once the writ has been served, a memorandum of service must be filed with the Court.

An action is commenced by way of originating summons where required by statute or if the dispute is concerned with matters of law where there is unlikely to be any substantial dispute of fact.

Entering an appearance

A defendant may elect to defend the lawsuit and enter an appearance, by filing a Memorandum of Appearance with the Court. He must generally enter an appearance before the deadline stipulated in the writ, but late appearances may still be valid.

Not entering an appearance

A defendant may also choose not to defend the lawsuit. If so, no appearance is entered, and the plaintiff will apply for a judgment in default of appearance. In this manner, the judge decides the case and hands down the judgment without the participation of the defendant.

Pleadings

In most cases, a statement of claim will be appended to the writ. This statement sets out the material facts of the matter which gives rise to the plaintiff’s cause of action. The statement of claim must also include the relief sought by the plaintiff.

For instance, in an employment dispute, the statement will contain the details of the employment contract, the cause of dispute between the employer and the employee, and the sum of unpaid wages claimed by the employee.

Within a prescribed time limit, the defendant will need to serve his defence on the plaintiff. The defence is a document setting out why the defendant should not be liable for the relief claimed by the plaintiff. Where the defendant has a counterclaim against the plaintiff, the counterclaim may be served together with the defence.

In some situations, subsequent to the receipt of the defence, the plaintiff will serve a reply onto the Defendant.

Third party procedure

If the defendant is of the view that another party is liable to indemnify it and/or otherwise contribute towards the plaintiff’s claim, the defendant may apply to add that party as a “third party”, leading to third party proceedings.

Summons for directions

After pleadings close (i.e. when the defence and reply have been exchanged), the plaintiff will take out a summons for directions. Summons for directions occur at the time when parties need to determine what further steps need to be taken in order to effectively prepare for trial. Directions pertaining to the filing and exchanging of affidavits, the number of witnesses a party may require, and the number of days a case may require are decided at this stage. Parties will also need to agree on specific evidence such as expert advice or photographs to be used in trial.

Court Dispute Resolution (“CDR”)

During the hearing for the summons for directions, CDR may be ordered by the judge. CDR includes alternative methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation or neutral evaluation. For more information, click here.

Offer to settle

A party to any proceedings may serve on any other party an offer to settle any one or more of the claims in the proceedings on the terms specified in the offer to settle. If the proceedings are settled, then the action may be discontinued or withdrawn.

Interlocutory applications

In the course of preparing the case for trial during the pre-trial stages, each party may file interlocutory application to the court in order to further the preparation of his case, or for other purposes.

Examples of common interlocutory applications are:

  • Application for discovery of documents: Through this process, the Court can order that parties disclose to each other the documents in their possession, custody or power which are relevant to the matter in dispute between them.
  • Application for the amendment of the various documents filed (eg the statement of claim, defence or reply) in relation to the matter in dispute.
  • Application for default judgment: Where a party applies for judgment or the dismissal of the claim without trial, as the case may be, on the grounds that the other party has failed to comply with any direction or order of the Court.
  • Application for summary judgment: where the plaintiff applies for judgment without trial on the grounds that the defendant has no real defence to contest his claim.
  • Application for interlocutory injunction: At any stage of the proceedings, but frequently immediately following the issue of the writ, it may be necessary and/or appropriate for a litigant to apply to court for an interlocutory injunction directing the other party to do or refrain from doing something until the trial of the action.
  • Application for Mareva injunction: The Mareva injunction is designed to prevent parties from taking steps to deliberately frustrate the orders of the Court by dissipating assets (either locally or worldwide) in order to avoid the risk of having to satisfy any judgment which may be entered against them in the proceedings.
  • Application for Anton Piller order: The Anton Piller order seeks to prevent a defendant from destroying incriminating evidence by permitting certain persons to enter his premises to search for, seize and retain documents or other items. Such an application is made without notice.
  • Application for Security for costs:  The court may order a person in the position of Plaintiff to give security for its ’ costs, to ensure that the costs in the suit are covered should the action fail.

Affidavits and subpoenas

Each party has to prepare, file, and exchange affidavits of evidence in chief of each of its witnesses. These are written sworn statements by the witnesses which will stand as their testimony at the trial and on which they will be cross-examined. The affidavits of evidence in chief are filed and exchanged before the trial.

Subpoenas may be issued to ensure the attendance of witnesses at trial, failing which the affidavits they have submitted as evidence in chief will be rejected by the court.

Pre-trial conference

Pre-trial conferences are sessions with a Judge to confirm that all pre-trial matters and applications are dealt with before the matter proceeds for Trial.

Setting Down

After the pleadings (such as the statement of claim, defence, reply) have been filed and the various pre-trial matters have been dealt with (including the disclosure of all documents and other evidence to be relied on at the trial to support each party’s case), and parties are ready for trial, the case must be set down for trial. This is a necessary step which is to be taken by either party (usually the plaintiff) before an action goes to trial.

The trial

Trials are usually conducted by the lawyers representing the various parties. Alternatively, a party may choose not to be represented. In such a case, he is known as a litigant-in-person.

In most cases, the plaintiff’s solicitors will open the plaintiff’s case (unless the burden of proof is on the defendant) by addressing the court and the plaintiff’s witnesses will take the stand first and be cross-examined. Each witness may be re-examined after his/her cross-examination has ended. After all the plaintiff’s witnesses have given evidence, the plaintiff’s case is closed.

It is then the turn of the defendant’s witnesses to testify and be cross-examined and re-examined on their evidence.

After the defendant’s witnesses have completed giving their testimony, parties will make closing submissions which may, depending on the Judge and complexity of the matter, be either oral or written.

Judgments and orders

The judgment is the decision of the Court at the conclusion of the trial. The Court may pronounce judgment immediately after listening to the closing submissions. Alternatively, the Court may adjourn the case to take more time to consider the evidence and arguments. In such an instance, the Court will inform the parties on a later date to attend before the Court for the delivery of judgment.

In certain cases, including personal injury claims, a Judge may grant judgment on the issue of liability but not make a ruling on the precise quantum of damages that has to be paid to the successful litigant by the other party. In such a case, the quantum of damages to be awarded is assessed by a Registrar in a hearing in chambers. The Registrar will hear evidence from appropriate parties, such as the injured plaintiff or medical experts, to determine the appropriate quantum of damages to be awarded.

Enforcement of judgments and orders

Judgments may be enforced in a variety of ways – for instance, where the plaintiff wins a case, he may want to take out a writ for seizure and sale to seize the property of the defendant for auction. Depending on the type of judgment awarded and the available assets of the judgment debtor, other enforcement methods, such as bankruptcy and winding-up applications, writs of possession, writs of delivery, writs of distress, committal, garnishee, receivership appointments, and the examination of the judgment debtor e.t.c., may be used.

Appeal

In restricted circumstances, an appeal is available to either the plaintiff or the defendant, to try to overturn the judge’s decision and take the case to a higher Court.

Special proceedings

Special rules apply to special proceedings, which include the winding up of a company, or matrimonial proceedings, such as divorces and annulments.