Death of a Party in a Legal Case in Singapore: What Happens?
What happens if a party to a court case in Singapore dies while the case is ongoing? The answer is different depending on which party it is and whether it is a:
Death of a Party in Criminal Cases
In a criminal case, if the victim of the crime dies while the case is ongoing, this does not affect the case. It proceeds.
If a witness dies, the case can, and usually will, continue except that that witness’ testimony will no longer be available. However, if the deceased was to be the only witness in the case, and there is no other evidence, then it may not be possible to continue the case. This is because there would no longer be any evidence at all, but this would be very unusual.
However, if the accused person in a criminal case dies while the case is ongoing, the case would have to stop. In those circumstances, the charges are abated pursuant to section 149 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), which in effect means that the charges are withdrawn and no conviction can be obtained.
An example of this would be the case of PP v Wong Zhun Siong, where the accused person died by suicide after being convicted of rape but before being sentenced. He had also been charged with a number of other more minor offences but had not yet been convicted of them. The accused’s existing conviction for rape was not affected by his death, but the other minor charges of which he had not yet been convicted were abated.
If a person had already been convicted of an offence before he dies, it is possible for a close friend or family member to file an appeal against the conviction up to 1 year after the death with the court’s permission. Alternatively, if the deceased had already filed the appeal before dying, but the appeal had not yet been heard, then a close friend or family member can, with the court’s permission, take over the conduct of the appeal and continue it until it is decided.
If permission is given to file or continue an appeal against conviction, and the appeal ultimately fails, then the conviction stands. The death of the accused would not be a relevant factor that the appeal court would take into account in considering the merits of the appeal.
Death of Party in Civil Cases
As in a criminal case, if a witness dies, a civil case may still continue, but the absence of that witness’ testimony may have an impact on the ability of the party producing that witness to discharge its burden of proof.
With regard to the death of a party to a civil suit, it matters whether the deceased was the claimant or the defendant.
The claimant is the person bringing the claim. On the other hand, the defendant is the person against whom the claim is brought. If either party dies, the other side can apply to court for the case to be struck out (i.e. dismissed) unless a personal representative of the deceased steps in to apply to be substituted for the deceased within a certain amount of time.
However, if it is the claimant who died and the defendant is the one applying for the case to be struck out if no one takes over from the claimant, then the court will grant that application only if it is satisfied that:
- The claimant’s personal representative(s); or
- Anyone who might have an interest in the claimant’s suit,
has been notified of the defendant’s application to strike out the case.
Someone then has to apply to take over from the deceased claimant. If no one does, the case will most likely be struck out.
The above situation is relevant only in a case where the cause of action (i.e. what the claimant is suing over) can survive death. If it does not, then the whole case essentially dies with the claimant’s death. For example, a defamation suit cannot survive the death of the claimant as dead persons no longer have reputations that can be damaged through defamation.
The kind of remedy being sought is also relevant as to whether a civil case can continue when one party to it dies. If a defendant in a breach of contract suit dies and his specific performance (i.e. the performance of his contractual obligations) is being sought, then this will be impossible if he is dead and the claimant will have to seek monetary damages (i.e. compensation) instead.
For example, you may have sued your plumber and asked the court to force him to repair your toilet pursuant to your contract with him. However if your plumber has died, then he cannot be forced to fix your toilet as a dead man cannot be forced to do anything at all. However, you could substitute the plumber with his estate (i.e. the assets he owned at the time of death) and seek monetary damages from it instead.
There are many causes of action that do survive death. For example, personal injury suits can be continued even if the claimant dies. So can claims for a contractual debt, regardless of whether it is the claimant or the defendant who has died. In the event of the defendant dying, however, it will become necessary to claim against the defendant’s estate instead.
What to Do If a Loved One Involved in a Criminal or Civil Case Dies in Singapore
Knowing what kinds of legal causes of action do and do not survive death in Singapore really requires engaging a lawyer. If your loved one had been a party to a legal case but passes away while the case is still ongoing, you should speak with a lawyer as soon as possible after the death to decide:
- Whether the case can/should be continued; and if so
- Who the most appropriate person to step in on behalf of your deceased loved one is.
The lawyer can make the necessary application for substitution, if appropriate, and act on behalf of your loved one’s estate or personal representative for the remainder of the case. You can consult your loved one’s lawyer, if your loved one had engaged one, or find criminal lawyers or civil lawyers here.
If you are involved in a court case and are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, or if you have been emotionally impacted by the death of a loved one, please reach out to one of the following helplines:
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222
- Silver Ribbon: 6386 1928
- Tinkle Friend (for primary school students): 1800-274-4788
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
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