Civil Litigation: How to Sue in Singapore (Step-by-Step Guide)
Litigation refers to the process of taking legal action or suing someone in court. Litigation stands in contrast to mediation, neutral evaluation, and arbitration, which are alternative methods of dispute resolution.
Litigation can generally be categorised into civil and criminal categories. In criminal litigation, the State, generally in the form of the Public Prosecutor, prosecutes an individual for an offence.
In civil litigation, a party called the plaintiff (or claimant) initiates legal proceedings against a party defending against the lawsuit (called the defendant) in order to pursue a claim. Claims may include anything from tenancy disputes to corporate disputes.
In this article, we will be focusing on how to bring about civil proceedings in Singapore. It will cover:
Prior to Legal Proceedings
As litigation may be an expensive process, plaintiffs should carefully consider whether to go ahead to sue. Legal considerations include the legal merits and strength of the plaintiff’s case and whether the plaintiff is still within the deadline for bringing the lawsuit.
There are also practical considerations, which include:
- The plaintiff’s objectives for suing
- Both parties’ financial resources
- The amount in dispute
- The potential duration of the legal proceedings from commencement until enforcement
- Whether the results of a successful litigation may be enforced effectively
Ultimately, litigation is a form of dispute resolution. Parties should therefore consider whether litigation is an effective means of resolving their dispute.
Legal proceedings in Singapore may take 12 to 18 months at the State Courts, and 12 to 24 months or more at the High Court, although the actual duration will depend on the unique issues in each case and how aggressive the defendant is in defending the case.
Before starting legal proceedings, where the plaintiff has engaged a law firm to act on their behalf, their lawyer may first send a letter of demand requiring the other party to comply with the plaintiff’s demands or risk a lawsuit. Where the demands are not complied with, the lawyer may advise commencing legal proceedings.
Special rules apply to certain proceedings, which include the winding up of a company (see Insolvency, Restructuring and Dissolution Act 2018), or matrimonial proceedings such as divorces and annulments (see Family Justice Act 2014).
How to sue in Singapore
(Note: a simplified procedure applies for claims made with the Small Claims Tribunals. For more information, read our article on filing a claim at the Small Claims Tribunals.)
1. Determining where to sue
A plaintiff may institute proceedings in the Small Claims Tribunals (SCT) subject to the claim falling within the jurisdiction of the SCT. The SCT has jurisdiction to hear claims of up to $20,000, or up to $30,000 if both parties agree to raise the claim limit.
Where the dispute falls outside of the jurisdiction of the SCT, the plaintiff must commence proceedings in the State Courts (which include the Magistrate’s Court and the District Court), or the General Division of the High Court.
The Magistrate’s Court has the power to hear civil actions where the disputed amount does not exceed $60,000. On the other hand, the District Court hears civil actions where the disputed amount does not exceed $250,000.
Where the amount of the claim exceeds the District Court’s jurisdiction, the parties may agree in writing to have the matter heard by the District Court nevertheless. If there is no such agreement, then the action will have to be commenced in the General Division of the High Court.
2. Filing and serving of a writ of summons or originating summons
A civil action is commenced when a writ of summons (or less commonly, an originating summons) is filed and processed by the court. Writs of summons are generally filed where a substantial dispute of fact is likely to arise.
Subsequently, the writ has to be served on the defendant. This service is usually effected by a law firm’s clerk, who delivers the writ in person to the defendant. Under certain circumstances, writs may be served by posting on doors or gates, through email or internet transmissions such as WhatsApp.
Writs may also 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.
On the other hand, an action is commenced by way of originating summons where this is required by law, or if the dispute is concerned with matters of law where there is unlikely to be any substantial dispute of fact.
But given the adversarial nature of Singapore’s court system where both the plaintiff and defendant are pitted against each other, there are typically disputes as to the facts of the case, resulting in writs of summons being the typical mode of starting a lawsuit.
The plaintiff may make a claim against more than 1 defendant where there is a common question of law or fact in its legal actions against those multiple defendants, or if the disputes arise out of the same series of acts by the defendants.
3. Entering an appearance
A defendant may elect to defend the lawsuit and enter an appearance by filing a Memorandum of Appearance with the court. The defendant must generally enter an appearance before the deadline stipulated in the writ, but late appearances may still be valid.
A defendant may also choose not to defend the lawsuit. If so, the defendant will not enter an appearance, 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 defendant’s participation.
4. Filing pleadings
In most cases, a statement of claim will be attached to the writ. This statement sets out the material facts of the matter that give rise to the plaintiff’s cause of action. The statement of claim must also include the relief sought by the plaintiff, i.e. what the plaintiff wants from the defendant if the lawsuit succeeds.
For instance, in an employment dispute filed by an employee over unpaid wages, the statement could contain:
- The details of the employment contract
- The cause of the dispute between the employer and the employee
- A statement that the employee is seeking the sum of unpaid wages from the employer.
Within a prescribed time limit, the defendant will need to serve a 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 also wants to bring a claim against the plaintiff, this counterclaim may be served together with the defence.
In most situations, after receiving the defence, the plaintiff will serve a reply to the defendant.
5. Applying to add third-parties
If the defendant is of the view that another party is liable to indemnify them and/or otherwise contribute towards the plaintiff’s claim, the defendant may then apply to add that party as a “third-party”, leading to third-party proceedings.
6. Applying for summons for directions
After the close of pleadings (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 where parties need to determine certain issues to effectively prepare for trial. This could include deciding:
- The deadlines for the filing and exchanging of affidavits
- The number of witnesses each party may need
- How long the trial may need to be
Parties will also need to agree on what evidence will be used during the trial, such as photographs or expert evidence.
7. Undergoing the discovery process
Discovery is the process by which the parties to a dispute obtain from each other relevant documentary evidence that is necessary for the deciding of the case.
At a summons for directions hearing, after the parties have exchanged pleadings, the court typically directs for relevant documents in the lawsuit to be exchanged.
Relevant documents include those that a party relies on, or will rely on, or if such documents could affect or support any party’s case. Parties are under a duty to give discovery of relevant documents where it is within their power to do so, even if such documents may harm their case.
8. Applying for interlocutory applications
In the course of preparing the case for trial during the pre-trial stages, each party may file interlocutory applications to the court to further prepare for their own case, or for other purposes.
Examples of common interlocutory applications are:
- Application for specific discovery: Where a party believes that the other party has not disclosed all relevant documents, they may apply to the court to order the other party to disclose such documents.
- Application for the amendment of the various documents filed: Parties may make an application to amend their documents filed in the suit (e.g. the statement of claim, defence or reply).
- 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 ground that the other party has failed to comply with any court direction or order.
- Application for summary judgment: Where the plaintiff applies for judgment without trial on the ground that the defendant has no real defence to contest their claim.
- Application for interlocutory injunction: At any stage of the proceedings, but frequently right after the issue of the writ, it may be necessary and/or appropriate for a party to the case to apply to court for an interlocutory injunction directing the other party to do or not do something until the trial.
- Application for Mareva injunction: The Mareva injunction is designed to prevent parties from taking steps to deliberately frustrate the court’s orders. This could include preventing a party from dissipating assets (either locally or worldwide) in order to avoid the risk of having to satisfy any judgment that 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 allowing certain persons to enter the defendant’s premises to search for, seize and retain documents or other items. Such an application is made without notice to the defendant.
- Application for security for costs: The defendant may apply for a court order requiring the plaintiff to give security for the defendant’s costs of defending against the plaintiff’s lawsuit, to ensure that such costs are covered should the plaintiff’s lawsuit fail.
9. Attending 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.
10. Filing affidavits and applying for subpoenas
Before the trial, 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 that will stand as their testimony at the trial, and on which they will be cross-examined.
Subpoenas may also 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.
11. Applying to set down dates for trial
After the pleadings (such as the statement of claim, defence and reply) have been filed, the various pre-trial matters have been dealt with and the parties are ready for trial, either the plaintiff or the defendant (but usually the plaintiff) will set down the case for trial.
This is done by filing a Notice for Setting Down An Action for Trial along with supporting documents.The court will then fix a date for the trial.
12. The trial
Trials are usually conducted by the lawyers representing the various parties. Alternatively, a party may choose not to be represented by a lawyer. In such a case, the party is known as a litigant-in-person and will conduct the trial themselves.
In most cases, the plaintiff’s lawyers will open the plaintiff’s case (unless a defendant has to prove all the issues in the case) by making the opening speech to the court. The plaintiff’s witnesses will then be called to the witness stand to be cross-examined.
This cross-examination involves the defendant’s lawyer asking the plaintiff’s witnesses questions about their testimony. The plaintiff’s lawyers may then re-examine the witnesses after their cross-examination. This is done by asking them questions that help clarify issues raised during the cross-examination.
After all the plaintiff’s witnesses have given their 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 delivered either verbally or in written form.
13. 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, such as personal injury claims, a judge may grant judgment on the issue of liability but not make a ruling on the exact amount of compensation (or “damages”) that has to be paid to the successful party in the lawsuit. If so, the amount of damages to be awarded will be assessed by a Registrar in a hearing.
The Registrar will hear evidence from appropriate parties, such as the injured plaintiff and medical experts, to determine the appropriate amount of damages to award.
The court may also make an order on which party is to pay costs to the other party (more on this below).
14. Enforcement of judgments and orders
After the court grants a judgment or order, the winning party will be able to execute (or enforce) the orders in the judgment. Judgments may be enforced in a variety of ways.
For instance, where the plaintiff wins a case and the defendant is not forthcoming with paying damages, the plaintiff may want to take out a writ of seizure and sale to seize and sell the property of the defendant to obtain the compensation owed to him.
Depending on the type of judgment awarded and the available assets of the party that has to pay damages, other enforcement methods, such as bankruptcy and winding-up applications, writs of possession, writs of delivery, writs of distress, committal, garnishee and receivership appointments may be used.
If the plaintiff or defendant is dissatisfied with the judge’s decision, they may be able to file an appeal against it in a higher court.
Settlement Between Parties
Offer to settle
A party to the lawsuit may serve on any other party a formal offer to settle any one or more of the claims in the lawsuit on the terms stated in the offer to settle. If the offer is accepted, then the lawsuit may be discontinued or withdrawn.
Offers to settle have tend to have costs implications. In other words, the court may take into account the offers to settle that parties have made or rejected, and the terms of such offers, when deciding how to award costs after the lawsuit has concluded.
If a party makes a formal offer to settle but the other party does not accept it, and the party who made the offer later wins the case on terms that are as or more favourable than the terms of its formal offer, then that party is generally entitled to more costs.
This is because if the offer had been accepted such that the matter is settled, the court and the parties would have then saved time and resources from further litigating the matter till the end.
Court Dispute Resolution (CDR)
During the hearing for the summons for directions, CDR may be ordered by the judge. CDR refers to alternative methods used by the court to resolve disputes apart from litigating the matter in court. Such alternative methods of dispute resolution include mediation, arbitration or neutral evaluation (see more below).
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
During the trial process, the court may also direct parties to indicate whether they are open to resolving the dispute through ADR methods such as mediation or arbitration.
Mediation is a service that may be provided by the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution at a relatively lower cost as compared to the litigation, or by other third-party mediation centres such as the Singapore Mediation Centre. Mediation is generally regarded as the default ADR option in practice.
Arbitration is relatively more expensive than mediation and neutral evaluation, but may offer some cost savings when compared to litigation. There are low-cost arbitration services provided by the Law Society of Singapore through its Law Society Arbitration Scheme.
Apart from mediation and arbitration, parties may also seek to negotiate a resolution to their dispute. A successful negotiation between parties may save parties considerable legal costs. Several factors that may be considered for negotiation are explained in our other article.
While there are several types of costs orders, the court generally orders the unsuccessful party to pay a portion of the successful party’s legal costs. Such costs orders are entirely at the court’s discretion, and there are exceptions where the winning party is not awarded costs.
For example, the court may choose not to award costs to the winning party if it had acted improperly or unreasonably when conducting its case.
Should You Hire a Lawyer For Your Litigation Matter?
Individuals may represent themselves in legal proceedings before the court. Businesses may also seek the court’s permission for an authorised representative to appear in court on their behalf.
However, given the complexity of the litigation process, the extensive procedural requirements and various actions that parties may take at each stage of the litigation process, parties are strongly encouraged to seek advice from and engage an experienced litigation lawyer before commencing any legal proceedings.
An experienced litigation lawyer would not only be able to ensure that procedural requirements are complied with, but would also be able to advise clients on the potential pitfalls of litigation and more importantly, formulate legal strategies for achieving their clients’ ultimate objectives.
Finally, as the litigation process is not short, involves numerous procedures and is subject to the defendant defending the case, legal fees for litigation may accordingly be expensive. Parties should therefore commence legal proceedings only if it makes sense to do so.
If you are considering commencing a lawsuit in Singapore, or may have to defend against one, you may consult experienced litigation lawyers for assistance here.
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