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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

This speech was delivered by the President at the Litigation Conference 2019 held on 22 and 23 April.

Good morning Guest of Honour, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, Mr Edwin Tong SC,
The Honourable Supreme Court Justices See Kee Oon and Chua Lee Ming,
The Honourable Supreme Court Judicial Commissioners Ang Cheng Hock and Vincent Hoong,
The Honourable Registrar of the Supreme Court, Ms Teh Hwee Hwee,
Distinguished Members of the Judiciary,
Mr Ian Lim and Ms Celeste Ang, Co-chairs of the Organising Committee,
Attendees of the Litigation Conference 2019,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to the most exciting instalment yet of one of Law Soc’s marquee conferences, the Litigation Conference. Hot off the press from the conclusion of the Public Consultation on the CJC and CJR reports in end January, we stand on the cusp of new beginnings. And there is no better place than the setting you are sitting in to converge as a community of civil litigation practitioners, whether young or old, generalist or specialist or hailing from a large, medium-sized or small firm. Each of us who have signed up for this event have a golden opportunity to form and inform the conversation about the future of our civil justice landscape – right where we are.

There are two thrilling observations I am pleased to make about this year’s edition. First, we have a bumper turnout of 342 registered participants. Second, close to two-thirds of our attendees are junior lawyers (essentially, less than five years in practice). Juniors present, as I’ve shared before, you are never too young to be a thought leader. The proceedings today and tomorrow, although featuring more than 20 stellar speakers, are not spectator sport. You can speak up in person or through pigeon hole and actively stimulate the thought leadership in the legal profession on the future of our civil litigation landscape.

CJC and CJR Reports

To recapitulate the background to this conference, the Honourable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon announced the establishment of the Civil Justice Commission (CJC) on 5 January 2015. The CJC was set up with the following main terms of reference:

  1. To transform, not merely reform, the litigation process by modernising it, enhancing efficiency and speed of adjudication and maintaining costs at reasonable levels.
  2. To simplify rules, avoid outdated language without discarding established legal concepts, eliminate time-consuming or cost-wasting procedural steps, ensure fairness to all litigants, make good use of advancements in information technology and allow greater judicial control of the entire litigation process.

Subsequently, the Civil Justice Review Committee (CJRC) was established on 18 May 2016 by the Ministry of Law. The CJRC’s key recommendations cover reforms to pre-trial procedure, trial and appeals procedure and post-trial procedure. These include:

  1. enhancing judicial control over civil litigation.
  2. implementing default case management track with options.
  3. introducing professional training requirements and public education to support the recommendations. 
  4. reviewing the implementation of the CJRC’s recommendations two years’ post-implementation.

What follows is the programme outlined for this conference.

First, Plenary Session 1. I will try not to steal my own thunder as well as that of Justice See’s and SC Thio Shen Yi’s. This is entitled “Civil Justice Reform – Win or Lose?” At the end of that session, judge for yourself whether we will gain a nett benefit (win) or nett disbenefit (lose) if the proposed reformation and transformation of civil justice rules proceed as planned by the policy makers. Or instead of a binary option, will the answer be an epic draw epitomized by the epigram: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”?

This afternoon, we will feature the second plenary session: “The Future of ADR in Singapore”. With a foreshadowed, groundbreaking signing in Singapore on 8 August of the historic UN Mediation Treaty, there is an increasingly strong emphasis on mediation. Many of us who practise in the Supreme Court litigation can attest to the proactive monitoring during PTCs. Most lawyers worth their salt will also advise their clients on ADR options early in the day, if nothing else from a cost-benefit perspective. And it is true that mediation is no longer the ugly step-sister of the more formal dispute resolution options. It is the Cinderella of the ball in many disputes and a main (not alternative) dispute resolution avenue in its own right. Should procedural duties be posited on the client as well to consider ADR? Or is that a step too far where there is a need to grow jurisprudence, launch test cases or navigate when issues are not yet discerned with clarity and certainty. And how do we boost mediation advocacy skills and grow cross-border mediation options? There will be much to caucus together during this session.

The third plenary rounding up today’s conference session will feature bread and butter topics for civil litigation practitioners on pleadings, case management conference and the single interlocutory applications. I will say more about the single interlocutory applications in the next session but let me say a word about pleadings now. Should we make a more complete move towards plain English in pleadings to ensure clarity and explicability especially for the lay client? Or will we run the risk of throwing the baby out together with the bath water given how pleading has become art form finesse and nuances including the traverse, confession and avoidance, non-admissions versus denials guiding the more experienced and skilled craftsmen.

Tomorrow sees four plenary sessions: first, on the meaty topics of discovery, factual and the expert witness statement. There is an understandable bane not boon that litigants (especially individuals with limited resources) experience when battered blue-black by discovery after discovery applications (whether general, further, specific, peremptory orders and so on) taking on a satellite litigation-esque course of their own. And at the end of the search for the proverbial smoking gun, it is instead smoke and mirrors. There is more heat than light, neither Counsel is wiser nor is the Judge enlightened. All it does is rack up more costs and waste more time. But let’s ascertain whether countervailing considerations present an equal and opposite force to the envisaged reforms.

To complete the civil litigation track from start to end, we end up with the trial proper. How should the trial of the future look like and should we test-trial matters?

But that Plenary Session 5 does not close the conference. Two more mouth-watering portions await after lunch tomorrow. Plenary Session 6 headed “New Rules, Same Pains: Challenges faced by the Young Lawyer (Litigator)”. Surprisingly, Toby Landau QC from our junior ranks is missing from this panel! But instead, we have the younger Tham Lijing and Richard Yeoh helming an interesting session with a slate of interesting lawyers who will bring an evergreen perspective. Junior lawyers, I know you will have much contributions to make during this session so don’t miss it for the world.

Last but not least, a topic that affects all our wallets: costs. Among other legal luminaries speaking to book end the conference is a bright constellation in the shape of the Honourable Judicial Commissioner Ang Cheng Hock. He will no doubt bring a rich confluence of both a practitioner and judge’s perspective on the policy and law involved with both breadth and depth.

On that programme note, in closing, I have said what I needed to to welcome and hopefully whet your appetite for the main star of our show this morning, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, Edwin Tong SC. I am sure he will present invaluable policy perspectives and share important news for us that we will all be taking note of and taking notes of.

Sit back, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for the race to the future; your future, our future, the future of civil justice in Singapore.

Partner, Dispute Resolution
Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP
Immediate Past President
The Law Society of Singapore