COS 2021: Litigants in Person

Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied): Chairman, I beg to move. “That the total sum to be allocated for Head E of the Estimates be reduced by $100”.

Our Constitution provides at Article 12 that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law. Today, I wish to focus on the challenges of litigants who do not have lawyers. I will highlight cases from the ground to illustrate difficulties they face in normal times and in COVID-19 times.

At the onset, I wish to acknowledge the attention that the Courts have been paying to the litigants in person. There are training programmes at the Singapore Judicial College to sensitise judges on how to handle such litigants in Court. Lawyers also see judges going the extra mile to explain to unrepresented persons, the requirements of the law and legal procedure. There are also inquiry counters at the Courts and education brochures in the four official languages.

My purpose is not to criticise current efforts but to highlight some observations from the ground for the Courts’ consideration for possible further enhancements.

There are three main challenges I wish to highlight. First non-English-speaking litigants. Second, the need for public buy in of Court procedures. And third, particular challenges caused by COVID-19.

First, non-English-speaking litigants. It is common at my Meet-the-People sessions to encounter Chinese-speaking residents showing me court documents and saying that they are unable to read them and do not know what they should do next. Indeed, according to the General Household Survey 2015, there remains nearly 20% of the population above 15 years old who are not literate in English.

I am aware that court interpreters can be applied for in advance of court hearings, and are available for Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, and other specific languages and dialects. However, this has to be applied for through e-litigation in advance, otherwise, deployment will be subject to availability. I wonder if many litigants in person have used e-litigation to apply for such interpretation services.

As for court documents, they are issued in English. Residents sometimes tell me that they do not understand the contents of Orders made by the courts. As the national language policy recognises Chinese, Malay and Tamil as official languages, I wonder if the courts could consider providing translations of court issued documents to litigants in these languages, either for free or for a nominal fee. If this is not possible for all documents, then is it possible at least for court orders, so that litigants are clear what is required of them?

My second point is the need for public buy in of Court procedures. To illustrate the point, I note some unhappiness from residents who had their neighbour disputes adjudicated by the CDRT which was discussed in the earlier Committee of Supply debate. The unhappiness was both about the hearing and the outcome.

To this end, I would hope that CDRT judges are specially selected with empathy and patience as key traits, and also have the ability to explain issues to litigants in simple and vernacular language. As for the Orders made by the CDRT, some residents are shocked to be ordered to stay out of their homes for a few weeks. After all, this is a most drastic order that undermines their property rights.

Finally, additional difficulties caused during the COVID-19 pandemic. The courts had to close for several weeks during the circuit breaker and continues to restrict physical hearings and counter services. There must now be a significant backlog of cases due to COVID-19. While some hearings took place via remote means such as Zoom, I wonder how many litigants in person had the resources and the wherewithal to avail themselves of that option.

I would like to illustrate the point using an elderly resident’s case. He was conducting a civil claim for damages after a road accident which left him partially disabled. After obtaining interlocutory judgment, his next step to quantify his damages was delayed due to court closures. An application by him was dismissed by the court remotely and he did not understand why. In the meantime, he suffered a stroke and is much weaker now. Time is of the essence to him.

So, my final point is, how have litigants in person been supported during COVID-19, and how can urgent cases be flagged out for expedited handling?

2 March 2021

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