RESPONSE BY SECOND MINISTER FOR LAW, MR EDWIN TONG SC AT THE COMMITTEE OF SUPPLY DEBATE 2021 (MINISTRY OF LAW)
02 Mar 2021 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
- Mr Chairman, good morning. I thank the Members for their speeches.
- Sir, as we emerge from COVID-19, we face both challenges but also extraordinary opportunities.
a. In terms of challenges, we look at how our legal framework can continue to achieve fairness, achieve justice in a changing world; and ensure that legal services remain accessible, including to the most vulnerable.
b. But we also face opportunities on how we can re-position, re-envision and strengthen our legal industry –
i. to ride on opportunities arising from technology
ii. to contribute to new areas of industry growth, and
iii. ultimately – to contribute to Singapore’s strong and vibrant economic growth.
- Our responses will determine whether we will be able to preserve the trust and international reputation that we have worked so hard to gain.
- I will share some details on how we intend to achieve this.
B. STRENGTHENING OUR LEGAL FRAMEWORK TO PRESERVE TRUST AND ADDRESS EMERGING ISSUES
- Let me first outline our efforts to strengthen some areas of our legal framework that Members have spoken about.
Community Justice – Community Disputes
- Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Mr Gerald Giam, and Mr Patrick Tay asked about community disputes.
- This is an issue that is very much on our minds and I think on the minds of many Members in this House. Particularly, in the past year, where people have been working from home, staying at home a lot more during the circuit breaker period - there has been a reported rise in neighbourly nuisance.
- By and large, CDRT proceedings are designed to be quick and straightforward. It is an adjudicatory process.
- However, the management of disputes between neighbours is not as straightforward. It is a delicate and often challenging area.
a. While we endeavour to resolve disputes amicably between disputing parties, neighbours can sometimes refuse to communicate; or sometimes refuse to come together, or to compromise. And this can then lead to a breakdown in relationships. As Mr Lim points out, an adjudication of rights in this context may solve that legal problem but does not solve the long-lasting dispute between the parties. We agree.
b. As Members have pointed out, we have put in place several avenues for parties to work through their disputes.
c. Community mediation is one - it is affordable, and we have seen that it is effective when parties approach it in the right spirit.
i. More than 80% of cases that are mediated at the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) have reached an amicable settlement. 80% is a strong endorsement of mediation as a tool to resolve community disputes.
ii. All 147 of CMC’s mediators have completed mediation training and assessment, before being appointed. Since 2018, all new mediators must be accredited with the Singapore International Mediation Institute (SIMI). They complete at least 12 hours of additional training during their three-year term, for re-appointment.
iii. We would like to assure Mr Giam that CMC’s mediators are trained, they are accredited and they are fully equipped with the specific skillsets to handle community disputes. As the numbers have shown, they have been successful.
iv. The challenge, however, is getting parties to mediation.
v. Because mediation is largely voluntary, there are also many parties who refuse to turn up for mediation, and that can arise from any number of different reasons peculiar to the case.
vi. This is not healthy for the neighbourly relationship in the longer term.
vii. My Ministry acknowledges that we can look at how we can improve the take-up of mediation, perhaps make it compulsory. These are areas we are studying seriously. I’ll explain some details in a moment.
d. As Mr Lim points out in his speech, parties may also commence CDRT proceedings - t hat is another option that is available.
e. But there are also limits to what courts in the adjudicatory process can do. The courts are ultimately arbiters of who is legally right and legally wrong – it is a binary, zero-sum game.
f. They are not structured to help parties mend their relationships. Nor can they supervise or monitor how parties behave after the specific proceedings end.
- We are mindful of the above limitations, and of the need to address these community disputes. These disputes often sit somewhere between being an annoyance and an offence, and the resolution of these disputes often require a multi-faceted approach. An inter-agency committee involving MinLaw, MCCY, MND, and MHA has commenced a comprehensive review of the Community Dispute Management Framework, to address these challenges.
- It is going to be a complex study that involves several ministries, but I will broadly outline the three areas that the committee is looking at:
a. First, we look at how neighbourly disputes can be better managed and resolved upfront;
i. when the disagreements arise, we need to quickly identify and address the root cause of issues.
ii. This helps to preserve goodwill. In this context, community leaders can play a big role.
b. We are also looking into measures to increase the take-up of community mediation, including increasing awareness of the benefits of mediation.
c. We will consider Mr Patrick Tay’s, Mr Gerald Giam’s, and Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s suggestions on compulsory mediation and counselling. Mr Giam might know that the product of a successful mediation is a mediated agreement, which we have the legal framework to enforce as a binding arrangement.
d. We will also explore Mr Lim’s suggestion to continue tracking a case even after it has been disposed of by the CDRT.
e. Finally, we are also looking into enhancing the CDRT process. The CDRT should continue to be the avenue of last resort, but as Members know it’s often still necessary.
f. We are considering several refinements to better address these disputes. For instance, considering if the CDRT can make interim orders, especially in cases of severe and continuing nuisance.
g. We are also aware that some claimants can find it difficult to gather evidence to support their claims. This is even though the CDRT is not itself bound strictly by the rules of evidence, and the proceedings are judge-led.
i. We will look at whether clarifications are needed in the legislation to ensure that parties do not find these proceedings unreasonably and unnecessarily onerous.
h. In some cases, respondents have wilfully refused to comply with the CDRT’s orders.
i. In one egregious case, the respondent started to create a different type of nuisance not covered by the CDRT order, presumably to spite the claimant after having gone through the process.
ii. We will look at how these gaps can be closed.
i. If a party does not comply with a CDRT order, the CDRT may issue a Special Direction.
i. Non-compliance with a Special Direction is a criminal offence, and can result in a court order that excludes the offending party from his or her place of residence.
ii. A total of 24 Special Directions have been issued as of 31 December 2020, for these egregious cases.
iii. To date, two Exclusion Orders have been made.
j. We will also look at whether the current measures are sufficient to protect our communities from anti-social behaviour and nuisance.
- Mr Tay asked about the CDRT’s caseload:
a. Since the CDRT was operationalised on 1 October 2015, 591 claims have been filed as at the end of last year, 31 December 2020.
b. Of these, 135, or more than one in 5, were ordered to undergo mediation.
c. On average, since 2018, the CDRT has disposed of slightly over 100 cases annually.
d. The majority of cases are resolved within 6 months, the remainder within 12 months, with a small handful outside of 12 months.
- We are studying the areas that I’ve outlined above carefully, and will introduce reforms to strengthen our management of community disputes. These will be announced when the study is concluded.
- Notwithstanding what I’ve said, whilst we can introduce more and more regulations and enhanced measures, ultimately, at the end of the day, it is fundamental for neighbours to maintain a culture of open communication, mutual respect and understanding.
- To the extent possible, may I ask that Members also refer parties and encourage them to attend mediation, given that mediators are well-trained and the numbers at CMC have proven successful at resolving these disputes. By and large, mediation is far more sustainable, longer-term, and has long-lasting impact in maintaining relationships between neighbours.
Community Justice – Harassment
- Mr Tay and Mr Lim asked about the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Mr Derrick Goh also touched on harmful online speech, in his cut filed with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
- Let me address them, first dealing with the number of cases dealt with under POHA to date.
a. Since the POHA came into force on 15 November 2014, 853 Protection Orders (POs) have been filed as at 31 December 2020.
i. This includes applications by victims of sexual and workplace harassment, online harassment, as well as harassment by neighbours.
ii. Data based on “types” of harassment are currently not available, but the State Courts are looking into enhancing the case management system to capture and track such data.
b. Of the 853 PO applications filed,
i. 135 were sent for mediation.
ii. 366 Expedited Protection Orders were granted – this means that the Courts granted interim relief in roughly about 4 out of 10 applications.
iii. 348 Protection Orders were granted, of which more than half were granted with the consent of both parties.
- This suggests that a good number of cases were, after the process had started, resolved amicably.
iv. The remaining applications were either withdrawn, dismissed, struck off or remain pending resolution.
- Sir, we have, over the years, strengthened the protections available under POHA.
a. In 2019, Members may recall that we amended POHA
i. Created new offences, such as doxxing. As at 31 December 2020, there were 29 cases of doxxing filed in the State Courts.
ii. We also enhanced the suite of tools available, e.g., having new remedies for victims of online falsehoods.
b. This year, the dedicated Protection from Harassment Courts will begin operation.
i. It was designed with the end-user in mind –
- Volunteers will be on hand to help victims navigate the process
- Judges will be specially trained to deal with harassment matters.
ii. The POHA Court will adopt simplified procedures and expedited timelines for certain types of applications.
iii. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the 2019 amendments, and will provide a more holistic assessment after the POHA Court has been in operation for some time.
Community Justice – Probate
- Next, let me turn to Mr Pillai’s suggestions to modernise and simplify the probate process. Ms Nadia Samdin also raised similar questions.
a. The Courts are working on an online application for straightforward probate matters, for individuals to use directly. Something that individuals can use on their own, as lay persons.
b. It will be linked to Government agencies’ databases, so that relevant information can be retrieved without users having to provide additional information or fill up any more documents than might be necessary.
c. Safeguards however will continue to be in place because for probate matters - we do have to ensure the integrity of the process as well as look after the interests of the beneficiaries.
Community Justice - Safe Access to Credit for Vulnerable Borrowers
- Mr Vikram Nair has filed cuts about our efforts to manage the moneylending sector.
a. We monitor the borrowing trends and developments very closely.
b. We have previously adjusted our regulatory framework to ensure safe access to credit for vulnerable borrowers, and will continue to do so as may be necessary.
- Members will recall that in July 2019, we introduced a comprehensive suite of measures to stem the increase in moneylending activities targeting foreigners, in particular foreign domestic workers.
a. As a result of these measures, lending to foreigners, especially the more vulnerable ones, has reduced significantly and indebtedness has been kept under control.
- To help borrowers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, we worked with the Credit Association of Singapore (CAS) to encourage licensed moneylenders to adopt various measures to assist borrowers, including debt restructuring and also debt consolidation.
a. We have received feedback from affected borrowers that these efforts by CAS and licensees have been helpful. We are grateful to CAS’ cooperation with us on this front.
- We continue to look for ways to better protect borrowers, such as through business-led improvements.
a. For example, in 2019, we granted moneylending licences to six firms to pilot new business models with features such as more comprehensive use of data to enhance creditworthiness assessment and also digitalised processes.
b. This pilot programme will end in 2022, following which we will assess its impact on the industry. It will inform our efforts to enhance the moneylending regulatory regime.
Effective access to justice
- Next, let me turn to effective access to justice. A number of Members – Mr Chris de Souza, Dr Tan Wu Meng, Mr Joshua Thomas, Mr Zhulkarnain and Mr Leong Mun Wai – have spoken about enhancing legal assistance for the vulnerable.
a. There has been observations that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened what some might term the “justice gap”.
i. The disruptions caused by the pandemic has raised demand for legal resolutions.
ii. At the same time, those disruptions may impact the vulnerable disproportionately – these are the same ones who often find it difficult to access legal services.
- This backdrop and the recent experience has deepened my Ministry’s resolve to enhance access to justice for all Singaporeans. We are doing so, on three fronts..
- First, on civil legal aid.
a. The Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) launched iLAB in February 2020.
i. This is a free legal chatbot that provides customised legal information on key topics such as divorce, personal protection orders, custody and guardianship, and maintenance. These are issues that most lay persons commonly seek assistance on.
ii. During the height of the pandemic, the chatbot was enhanced to provide answers to commonly asked legal queries that arose from the COVID-19 situation.
b. LAB revamped its Applicant Portal in February 2020, allowing applicants to make their applications to do their means testing, and to give their instructions, all online.
i. Through process enhancements, processing time was shortened by about 2 weeks.
c. We will push ahead with our efforts to make legal information and advice more accessible in 2021:
i. LAB will add more topics to the iLAB chatbot.
ii. It will also expand its partnerships with social agencies to offer legal advice via video-conferencing at various community touchpoints, through partners such as Our Tampines Hub, Family Service Centres. Essentially, to make its services more accessible, directly to vulnerable applicants, as Ms Samdin has suggested.
iii. MinLaw is also working with the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS) to develop a one-stop legal information portal – which Ms Hany Soh asked about.
- This online portal will provide members of the public with clear and easily understandable information on common legal topics.
- This will also provide information as the various sources of legal assistance available.
d. Dr Tan Wu Meng spoke about increasing flexibility in means testing to assist legal aid applicants with exceptional circumstances.
i. Sir, we are mindful of the need to be flexible in means testing, particularly for applicants who find themselves in exceptional circumstances. We have designed our means test framework to cater to this. First, we have built in a set of rules so that officers can, within these rules, exercise discretion in assessing an application. So, for example, if an applicant has severe disability and/or illness, and is 60 years old or above, the means test assessment can exclude some of the applicant’s savings in computing their eligibility.
ii. Beyond this, we have also established an independent Means Test Panel which reviews cases that do not satisfy the means criteria but are unable to afford basic legal services due to exceptional circumstances.
iii. Let me assure Dr Tan that this Panel has the full flexibility to decide if an applicant who may not have passed the means test should still nonetheless qualify for legal aid. The Panel has done so for a few cases and will continue to exercise this discretion judiciously, where the case merits. In Dr Tan’s case, let me have the details of that specific case for our review and see how we can assist.
e. Sir, we believe that these efforts have led to tangible impact on the ground:
i. In a survey conducted by my Ministry in late 2020, 3 in 4 respondents agreed that legal aid is accessible to those in need.
- Second, let me speak about enhancements to criminal legal aid, which Mr Christopher de Souza and Mr Leong Mun Wai spoke about.
a. The Government has been co-funding CLAS, the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, in what we call “Enhanced CLAS” since 2015, to serve more accused persons who merit legal assistance but otherwise cannot afford it.
i. The Government funds on average $2mil per year. That’s about 75% of CLAS’s total operating costs.
ii. Enhanced CLAS receives an average of 2,400 applications annually – all of whom receive some basic legal advice, and
iii. More than half, or 1,400 applicants per year on average, received full legal representation.
iv. This is more than three times the number of applicants who have benefitted from full legal representation prior to Enhanced CLAS in 2015.
v. CLAS currently covers 17 Acts – these account for about 70% of all non-capital criminal charges filed in the State Courts.
b. Sir, we are mindful of the need to and will continually and proactively review how we can enhance access to justice for accused persons of limited means.
c. As stated in the Ministerial Statement on Parti Liyani v Public Prosecutor last November, we started reviewing our criminal legal aid model in 2019, five years since the start of the Enhanced CLAS. This year, we will conclude our study on how we can enhance the provision of criminal legal aid, including the coverage in terms of means criteria and offences, and the possibility of setting up a Public Defender’s Office.
d. We are carefully studying the experiences of other countries to avoid the problems they have encountered, such as abuses of legal aid by wealthy defendants, and its impact on the legal fraternity.
e. We will consider both the coverage and the measures that we should adopt to ensure that we will have a sustainable criminal legal aid model.
f. In the meantime, we are continuing to make improvements to legal assistance for accused persons under CLAS.
i. We introduced new means test criteria for civil legal aid in October 2019, aligned with those commonly used in social support schemes, namely:
- per capita household income;
- Annual Value of applicant’s place of residence; and
- applicant’s savings and non-CPF investments.
ii. This year, we will extend the new means test criteria for CLAS as well.
- There will be no material impact on the overall number of households eligible, we will maintain it at 25% of resident households. There is no drop.
- But the changes will simplify the application process and also reduce the amount of paperwork for applicants, compared to the current process.
iii. In addition, LSPBS introduced and will launch a new online application process for criminal legal aid, which
- Provides applicants with detailed, step-by-step guidance on how to apply online.
iv. LSPBS has also established a referral protocol with the Courts
- The Courts can now refer accused persons who need legal assistance but who are unable themselves to apply online, directly to LSPBS, to ensure that help is available even for those who are less digitally savvy.
- Sir, even as we study the Public Defender’s Office, which needs to be looked at carefully – including, as I mentioned, the experiences of other countries – we have nonetheless continued to push on with enhancements to ensure that the justice system remains accessible. This will remain a key cornerstone of our legal system.
- Third, we will introduce a framework for Conditional Fee Agreements (“CFAs”) to provide an additional litigation funding option for international arbitration, for domestic arbitration, and for certain prescribed proceedings in the Singapore International Commercial Courts (“SICC”).
a. Sir, CFAs are agreements where a lawyer, representing a client in a claim, receives payment of some or all of the legal fees only if the claim is successful.
b. We are studying how CFAs may be adopted for certain categories of domestic proceedings.
c. The intent behind the CFAs is to allow litigants, including businesses facing risks of insolvency or cash flow issues, to pursue meritorious claims which they may not otherwise have been able to pursue.
Family & Civil Justice
- Next, let me touch on some areas of family and civil justice, which Members have asked about.
- Mr Zhulkarnain asked about protections for certain vulnerable groups against family violence.
a. We have amended POHA, the CPC and the Penal Code to introduce a number of measures over the past few years, to tackle family violence. These include:
i. Introducing new offences and enhanced penalties to deter the abuse of
- Persons with whom the offender was in an intimate or close relationship (such as members of the same household), or
- Children under 14 years old, or
- Persons who are substantially unable to protect themselves from abuse, neglect, or self-neglect, by reason of mental or physical infirmity, disability or incapacity, and
- Foreign domestic workers (where the offender is the employer, or member of the employer’s household or the employment agent);
ii. We made all offences committed against vulnerable victims arrestable; and
iii. We have simplified the application process for Personal Protection Orders (“PPOs”) and the Expedited Orders (“EOs”).
b. An Inter-Agency Taskforce on Family Violence, led by MSF and MHA, was also set up in February 2020 to look into further strengthening protections.
i. That Taskforce will submit its recommendations on how we can better prevent and deal with incidents of family violence in due course.
- Mr Zhulkarnian had asked if we were considering replacing the definition of “family violence” under the Women’s Charter to cover groups such as “intimate partners” and those in “close relationships”.
- We should highlight that non-family members who suffer abuse are protected under the Penal Code and POHA.
- Mr Patrick Tay raised some questions in relation to the Employment Claims Tribunal (“ECT”).
a. Let me assure Mr Tay that if any claimant encounters any issue with enforcing an ECT order, the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) will provide assistance to the claimant by advising him or her on the process of enforcing the ECT order, including the types of Court documents to be submitted. For lower-wage workers, TADM will help to bear the costs of enforcing the ECT orders.
- Mr Tay has suggested that for insolvent companies, the Ministry of Manpower can advance money first to the worker and thereafter stand in his place as a preferred creditor.
a. I understand that MOM has looked at this proposal before.
- It recognises that advancing money in such a situation may provide relief to the worker in the immediate short-term.
- But at the same time, this also distorts the market, and may also inadvertently create a larger problem of a viable company defaulting or owing the salaries, when knowing that workers might then obtain payments from Government funds.
- This may lead to a bigger systemic problem in the longer term.
b. Workers who are unable to recover unpaid salaries may also tap into the Short-term Relief Fund (STRF) and the Migrant Workers’ Assistance Fund (MWAF).
- Mr Tay also mentioned the need to publish ECT judgments.
a. Currently, judgments or grounds of decision may be made available to the public upon request.
b. In assessing requests, the ECT will consider factors such as whether these judgments, when published, will assist in future cases.
i. This practice is consistent with applications for judgments and grounds of decisions in the State Courts, including other tribunals such as the Small Claims Tribunals.
c. MOM will make applications to the ECT to publish grounds of decision, where these would help to clarify common misunderstandings about employment laws or increase awareness of employment obligations and rights.
i. These can then become useful references and precedents to employers, employees and to mediators of subsequent cases.
- I should add that the State Courts will also, on top of this, consider publishing selected ECT grounds of decision on an anonymised basis.
- Sir, that sums up two areas that we are pushing this year: community justice, and access to justice.
C. POSITIONING OUR LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND LEGAL SECTOR IN SUPPORT OF A VIBRANT ECONOMY
- Let me now turn to our other efforts to support a vibrant economy. There are two key planks to this:
a. First, our response to COVID-19, and
b. Second, the steps we’ve taken to continue to enhance and strengthen Singapore as a leading international legal and dispute resolution hub.
COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act and related support measures
- First, our response to COVID-19.
- We rolled out a series of urgent measures in 2020 to support citizens and businesses in a very difficult time.
- These initiatives illustrate how my Ministry has helped Singaporeans ride out the impact of the COVID-19 storm and emerge stronger together.
a. The temporary relief from contractual obligations and rental relief framework provided much-needed breathing space for businesses and individuals alike, and promoted a fair sharing of obligations.
i. As of 23 February this year,
- More than 8,600 notifications for relief have been served through MinLaw’s electronic system;
- About 117,000 notices of cash grant have been issued under the rental relief framework.
b. The Simplified Insolvency Programme (SIP) and the Re-Align Framework, the two most recent measures, both aim to help the economy as a whole pivot and emerge stronger from this crisis.
i. The SIP – which commenced on 29 January this year – provides financially distressed micro and small companies (“MSCs”), with a low-cost and a faster, more efficient way of either
- exiting the business, via liquidation; or
- finding a way to restructure your debts – so that you can then proceed with a business which remains viable.
ii. The Re-Align Framework also allows MSCs to renegotiate selected types of contracts with their counterparties.
- To date, more than 490 Notices of Negotiation were lodged and served via the online electronic system.
iii. We have also received feedback that the introduction of the Framework in itself has promoted dialogue and discussion between parties to discuss constructive ways to forge forward themselves, without the help of assessors.
- Many have successfully renegotiated their agreements without the need to even serve a notice under the Framework.
c. All four of these urgent responses showcased the trust and the strong relationships between stakeholders and experts across Government and the private sector. They worked together to roll out and implement the legislation in record time.
i. It really would not have been possible without such a strong partnership between the different sectors of the legal industry, working hand in hand with many other agencies in the government, and also with the private sector, especially the commercial businesses and chambers – all of whom came together with suggestions or thoughts to make the legislation as wide-ranging and as efficient as possible in its implementation.
- Mr de Souza asked about smaller landlords – especially retirees – who do face genuine hardship in meeting their obligations under the framework.
a. The framework provides additional relief to eligible tenants who have suffered at least a 35% drop in monthly revenue. It is not for every tenant; it is only for tenants who have themselves seen such a drop in their revenue.
b. Nonetheless, to recognise the need to balance the interests of landlords as well, the framework allows landlords to make an application for assessment on the grounds of hardship, to reduce their share of the rental waivers by half.
c. MAS had also worked with the banks and finance companies to allow affected individual and SME landlords to defer their property loan repayments last year.
i. SMEs could defer their principal repayments, while individual landlords could defer both interest and principal.
ii. Eligible landlords who continue to experience cashflow difficulties this year can apply to their lenders for a temporary reduced instalment plan, or work out alternative arrangements.
- Mr Pillai asked if we intend to introduce any new measures.
a. We will continue to monitor the implementation of these various frameworks, initiatives and its impacts on the ground closely, and
b. We will make adjustments as may be necessary.
c. And we will not shy away from introducing further measures should there be a need to.
- Mr Pillai also suggested having a framework legislation, that can be deployed quickly at the next crisis.
a. we understand Mr Pillai’s suggestion, and I think the intent behind it is good - to make it quick and flexible, and easy to understand and implement.
b. But at the same time, each crisis is different, and its impact on aspects of business, which parts of the economy, how even it might be in its impact, might be different with each crisis.
c. COVID-19 hit many businesses and sectors especially hard, particularly the travel and conference sectors. It may be different in other crises.
d. The measures that have been put in place over the course of the last year, I should emphasise, have been extraordinary, designed to meet an extraordinary crisis.
e. And the next one may well differ in scope and scale.
f. We did not, for example, intervene in previous cases, for example in SARS in 2003. So we must be careful and circumspect before intervening in private arrangements.
g. A framework legislation, whilst well-intentioned, might not be sufficiently nuanced and targeted to meet the unique challenges of the next crisis.
h. Our experience responding swiftly to COVID-19, will nevertheless help to shape and sharpen our responses moving forward.
i. At the same time, our system of governance allows us to move fast, be nimble, act quickly for the benefit of Singaporeans, as we have demonstrated in the course of last year. So we do have every confidence that should there be a need to in subsequent years, we will be able to respond in similar fashion.
- That said, there are some areas where we are looking at introducing more lasting changes which will take into account the lessons that we have learnt from the pandemic, drawing a leaf out of Mr Pillai’s suggestion.
a. My Ministry has been working with the Courts to drive the digital transformation of the litigation process.
i. COVID-19 has accelerated the shift towards non-traditional modes of hearing, where both litigants and counsel may not be present before the judge in the same physical location at the same time.
ii. These may include conducting hearings through video-link, and also based on documents filed by parties.
iii. The temporary measures under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act have been positively received by court users and also members of the Bar.
iv. We will build on these successes, facilitate the technological transformation of our court system, and expand the existing scope of non-traditional modes of hearing.
v. This will of course also be subject, as Mr Pillai will understand, to appropriate safeguards, to ensure that the propriety of the hearing, integrity and the fairness, which are ultimately of paramount consideration, will be upheld.
vi. These changes will help the Courts to improve the efficiency and accessibility of court processes, and also lower the cost of dispute resolution for litigants.
- Second, strengthening Singapore as a leading international legal and dispute resolution hub remains high on our priorities.
a. My Ministry has been investing heavily in this, over the past decade.
b. And we will continue to push hard, to enhance our value proposition, so that parties will find it attractive to
i. procure legal services from Singapore-based firms, and
ii. to use Singapore as a trusted venue to resolve their disputes, even if the underlying transaction might have nothing to do with Singapore.
c. This creates economic value and good work for Singapore and Singaporeans.
d. Let me outline a few aspects of this.
Advancing international legal cooperation
- First, we continue to take our standing on the international stage and international cooperation very seriously, to burnish our reputation as a reliable and trustworthy jurisdiction, that is a responsible actor on the global stage.
- In June 2020, we adopted a Model Agreement with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to host ITLOS proceedings in Singapore.
- Singapore is the first and only country to have such an arrangement with ITLOS.
a. The Model Agreement reaffirms Singapore’s commitment to the international rule of law, on the peaceful settlement of disputes; and
b. it is an endorsement of Singapore as a neutral venue for the effective settlement of international disputes.
- We are pursuing a number of other efforts in the area of international civil cooperation.
a. One example, as Mr Pillai is well aware of, is the Apostille Convention, which Mr Pillai has brought up on several occasions. This facilitates cross-border recognition and use of public documents.
b. With the passing of the Apostille Bill in November 2020, we became a party to the Apostille Convention in January 2021.
- Mr Pillai also asked for my Ministry’s position on the Hague Service Convention, which is a major international treaty that facilitates and also streamlines the transmission of judicial and extrajudicial documents for service abroad in civil and commercial matters.
- We are currently studying the possibility of acceding to the Convention.
a. We have begun consultations with stakeholders, including on the practicalities, the actual practical steps in implementing the Convention, and we’ll update Mr Pillai when we reach a landing on this.
Establish Singapore as a thought leader in international ROL efforts
- Second, we continue to position Singapore as a thought leader on international rule of law matters. The key effort in this regard relates to the Singapore Convention on Mediation, as Mr Sitoh Yih Pin has highlighted –
a. As members would recall, this is the first UN Convention bearing Singapore’s name.
b. It continues to be a mark of pride for us.
- We have since introduced the Singapore Convention on Mediation Act and its Rules to implement the domestic legal framework for the Convention.
- To commemorate the entry into force of the Convention on 12 September 2020, we jointly organised a digital event with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) involving the six countries (including Singapore) that had deposited their respective instruments of ratification for approval.
- Moving forward, we will continue to offer technical assistance on the Convention to other countries, and promote its ratification and maintain our position as a thought leader in this area.
Strengthening our dispute resolution framework and institutions
- Third, we continue to strengthen our status as a leading international dispute resolution hub.
- Mr Sitoh asked how we can continue to promote Singapore, despite the restrictions because of COVID-19.
a. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly affected the normal operations of our dispute resolution institutions.
b. But they have responded swiftly, adapted and also enhanced their own technological offerings to better adapt to the evolving situations.
- Let me just give some examples:
a. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) have made provisions for online arbitrations and mediations for parties, almost immediately.
b. Maxwell Chambers pivoted from providing physical hearing and facilities to offering parties integrated and seamless virtual and hybrid alternative dispute resolution (ADR) hearing services.
i. It has also collaborated with other hearing centres in the region to facilitate ADR hearings for international parties who may be located in different parts of the region, different venues physically.
- We will continue to strengthen partnerships with key stakeholders and support these dispute resolution institutions in building up their international networks.
- At the same time, these institutions have continued to expand their global presence and partnerships, in some ways taking advantage of the COVID-19 period to build their future resources, and to look at expanding their footprint:
i. opened its 5th international rep office in New York in December 2020; and
ii. It entered into collaboration with partner dispute resolution institutions and universities in key markets such as China, Japan, and Thailand.
b. SIMC was also active in extending its international footprint, and forging closer collaborations with partners overseas, including with Japan and China.
- MinLaw also signed an MOU with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade at the sidelines of last year’s Singapore-China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting.
a. This is to establish a working group to study the feasibility of co-developing a dispute resolution mechanism between Singapore and China; and
b. To see how Singapore can play a role in resolving disputes involving China and the countries along the Belt and Road initiatives.
- Other than strengthening our international partnerships, we also amended the International Arbitration Act to further enhance our legal framework for international arbitration.
- This has borne fruit, with both SIAC and SIMC achieving record caseloads in 2020:
a. As of 30 October 2020, SIAC received 1,005 cases, including two sets of related cases, surpassing the 1,000 mark for the first time.
b. SIMC, a much younger institution, also received a record 43 cases in 2020.
- Going forward, we will continue to
a. build on our strengths, what we’ve achieved so far,
b. expand our international partnerships for global presence, and
c. implement other legislative changes to keep our dispute resolution services and offerings vibrant, competitive and moving with the times.
- We are currently working on extending the existing third-party funding framework to domestic arbitration and also certain prescribed proceedings before the Singapore International Commercial Court (“SICC”).
- As I mentioned earlier, we are also working on introducing a framework for CFAs for the same categories of proceedings covered by the third-party funding framework.
- These changes will serve to meet the demand for alternative funding arrangements by commercial litigants.
a. We envisage that it will also bring in more work for our lawyers, and level the playing field for them vis-à-vis foreign lawyers who have already been able to offer such arrangements.
Intellectual Property/Singapore IP Strategy 2030
- Sir, let me turn to our intellectual property strategy. We have been continuing to develop Singapore’s intellectual property (“IP”) ecosystem, to maintain our top ranked IP regime and establish Singapore as a global hub for IP and intangible assets (“IA”).
- First, we launched the SG IP Fast programme in 2020, to fast track the registration of patents, related trademarks and registered designs in Singapore, to cut the processing time for businesses. As members will appreciate, time is efficiency and is profitability. So our IP efforts have been focused on cutting down the amount of time needed for these processes. For instance, under this programme, patent protection can be secured within 6 months.
- Second, to support enterprise growth through IP and IA (Intangible Assets), we have partnered SGX to launch the Intangible Disclosure Evaluation and Audit Scheme (IDEAS) to encourage companies to undergo IA evaluations and promote a more robust IA disclosure regime.
- Third, to build up IP jobs and skills, we launched the Workforce for IP Savvy Enterprises (WISE) programme, in partnership with SBF, to help Singapore enterprises acquire new capabilities and skillsets through IP.
- We are also working closely with our stakeholders and partners on the Singapore IP Strategy 2030, looking into the next bound, the next decade, which aims to strengthen and reinforce Singapore’s position on the world stage as a global hub for innovation.
- More details will be announced on World IP Day, which will take place in April, next month.
- Mr Christopher de Souza asked about enhancing Singapore’s reputation as a jurisdiction for companies to protect and defend their IP when disputes arise.
a. This, in fact, is one of our key focus areas:
i. In 2019, we amended the Arbitration Act and the International Arbitration Act to clarify that
- IP disputes are arbitrable in Singapore, and
- that such arbitral awards bind only the parties to the arbitration proceedings.
ii. Last year, IPOS launched the Young IP Mediator initiative, in partnership with our local universities, to build up IP mediation experience amongst law students, socialise IP mediation to them, at an early stage of their career, and to build awareness amongst law students and fresh graduates alike.
b. We will continue to build our capabilities in handling IP dispute resolution, to make Singapore a “go to” place when companies have IP disputes to resolve.
D. SUPPORTING THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE LEGAL INDUSTRY AMIDST COVID-19 AND DIGITALISATION
- Moving on to efforts on our technological transformation, topics which Mr Joshua Thomas and Mdm Rahayu had spoken about.
- Many participants in our Emerging Stronger Conversation on Legal Industry Transformation – and this includes legal professionals, those in practice, academics, and law students – I think all have been practically unanimous in highlighting the need for the legal sector to embrace technology and to build on existing platforms and capabilities. We have taken on board their feedback.
- Our efforts on this front are multi-faceted:
a. We partnered LawSoc to implement a series of workshops, roadshows and technology demos to raise awareness, and to socialise lawyers with devices and platforms which they might otherwise not be familiar with.
b. We extended the period of support for the funding scheme Tech-celerate for Law and enhanced support rates from 70% to 80% in 2020.
i. As of 14 September 2020, a total of 233 law practices had benefited under this scheme and its predecessor –Tech Start for Law – to adopt technology in their practices.
c. Finally, a few months ago, we launched the Technology and innovation Roadmap in October 2020.
i. The roadmap was co-developed with more than 95 stakeholders from the industry.
ii. It charts out our vision and plans to promote innovation, technology adoption and development for Singapore’s legal industry up to 2030.
- Moving forward, we will enhance our efforts to uplift the entire legal sector through technology.
- We understand the challenges faced by law practices, especially smaller firms. Technology platforms can have impact on their overheads. They have to invest time and effort to identify, curate and also integrate technology into their existing workflows.
a. As such, MinLaw is planning to develop an integrated Legal Tech Platform that unifies law firms’ existing technology tools, as far as possible.
b. The platform will be designed specifically to facilitate legal workflows from end-to-end. This sets the platform apart from generic software that caters to workflows of businesses in general or to specific segments or sectors of the business workflow.
i. We envisage that the platform will enable law practices and lawyers to work anytime, anywhere.
ii. It will have a single unified user interface for lawyers to access the functionalities – such as case and document management – as part of their existing tools.
iii. It will also allow lawyers and their clients to collaborate easily on legal matters via a one-stop-shop platform, as far as technically feasible.
- They will be able to share documents and jointly work on such documents on this platform.
- It will also aggregate client communications from various platforms such as MS teams, Slack, and so forth. But with the caveat that it obviously has to be something that is integrable and not something that is too archaic.
c. The Platform will aim to supplement and support existing legal technology adopted by firms. As far as possible, we do not want to make firms reinvent the wheel, and will see the extent to which we can integrate the existing system or software that they already have, with the platform that we have in mind.
i. We aim to make lawyers, ultimately, comfortable with using existing tools. At the same time, going onto the platform and adopting these new legal solutions, which we believe will give them a significant boost as they continue to compete at a regional and global stage.
- We will work with other agencies to explore complementary schemes as well, to support small and medium firms and avail them to assistance by technology consultants and also job redesign services.
- MinLaw is also working with IMDA and industry partners to develop an Industry Digital Plan which will –
a. Provide a step-by-step guide for lawyers to assess their own digital readiness; and
b. To identify suitable technology solutions to adopt at each stage of their growth, because the firms are on different parts of the spectrum in terms of readiness for technology adoption.
- Sir, beyond technology adoption, innovation is also important for law practices to continue to thrive. For that we have Singapore Academy of Law’s Future Law Innovation Programme (FLIP), which Mr Zhulkarnain spoke about.
- While COVID-19 has disrupted some of FLIP’s planned activities such as workshops and networking events, FLIP continued to provide support to the legal community, in particular smaller law firms, through its “Lighten-Up” business process improvement programme.
- This “Lighten-Up” programme seeks to help law firms increase productivity through technology and its own business process improvements.
a. To date, 20 firms have completed or are going through the programme.
- Mr Zhulkarnain and Mdm Rahayu also asked about equipping our lawyers and students for the future, including enhancing their exposure to new and developing fields of work. This is indeed an important area as we look at growing lawyers for the future economy.
- MinLaw has been supporting our lawyers to strengthen their expertise in key practice areas and markets. For example:
a. MinLaw administers the SkillsFuture study award to support practitioners in obtaining new qualifications in growth areas such as projects and infrastructure, insolvency; and practice law in leading overseas jurisdictions.
i. As of 19 February 2021, 134 lawyers and in-house counsel have benefitted from this scheme.
b. Second, MinLaw runs a number of capability development programmes for lawyers to gain domain expertise and market exposure and knowledge.
i. One example is the China Ready Programme – the first run of which was completed in 2020.
ii. This helps lawyers to better understand not just laws but also business culture and environment in China, enabling them to work more effectively with Chinese clients and partners.
iii. We are aiming to launch the next run later this year.
iv. This programme complements the Lawyers Go Global programme which provides lawyers with a deeper appreciation of regional demand for legal services, and also connects them with local businesses and legal communities in those jurisdictions on their mission trips. Of course, we have not been able to do that recently, but will continue to do so once we have the opportunity to.
c. We will continue to work closely with our stakeholders to support relevant training programmes for legal professionals.
- As for law students and fresh graduates:
a. We will continue to work with the institutions to finetune the curriculum to ensure that law students are well-equipped to meet the demands of the legal practice, which – I think Members will appreciate, especially lawyers amongst us – is changing very quickly.
b. This will also include changes to the practice training regime, which MinLaw has accepted in principle, and which we will be working with stakeholders to implement in 2023.
- Mr Joshua Thomas has asked about how we can support law firms to internationalise.
- Apart from the initiatives I have outlined above, we have also been actively building networks and strengthening collaborations with key stakeholders, and marketing our legal services in key markets – in ASEAN, in India, in China. We also looked at how we can improve access for Singapore law practitioners and lawyers in these markets. Apart from initiatives I have outlined above, one other area to leverage on is the Singapore Jiangsu Cooperation Council (SJCC) to develop an Internationalisation Corridor:
a. It aims to drive collaborations between Chinese enterprises and professional services firms, with a focus on legal and accounting firms.
b. This represents a next phase in our efforts to help law firms internationalise through cross-sector collaboration.
E. CO-CREATION OF SOLUTIONS TO OPTIMISE THE USE OF STATE PROPERTIES & BUILDING GEOSPATIAL CAPABILITIES
- The final section of my speech will relate to the work of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).
- As Mr Christopher de Souza mentioned, SLA has contributed to the wider WOG effort to combat COVID-19 during this pandemic.
a. SLA had to retrofit and manage vacant State properties, and also contract to manage hotels and other facilities, to provide interim accommodations, such as for persons serving Stay Home Notices and for Government Quarantine Facilities (GQF).
b. I would like to thank the many officers and volunteers within SLA, who worked so hard in seeing to this national effort.
Partnering with stakeholders and the public on the use of state properties
- SLA will continue to work closely with the community and its stakeholders to co-create solutions to optimise the use of State properties, so as to derive better value for the State and the community.
- For example, SLA, working with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (“URA”), will be engaging the public on ideas for the adaptive reuse of State properties at Changi Point, as part of its efforts to enhance the rustic charm of that area.
- SLA will also continue to convert under-utilised State land into community spaces such as Yarrow Gardens, which will be used as a 3-Generation Park.
- Mr Derrick Goh asked about SLA’s steps towards digitalisation. SLA has indeed been moving ahead to digitalise, across multiple domains and services. Let me just outline a few.
- SLA has digitalised its Temporary Occupation Licences (TOLs) processes from front-to-end.
a. All TOLs are now issued in electronic format, as well as digitally signed.
b. This saves time and reduces the possibility of a misplaced TOL.
- Another area SLA is looking into, and which the member has pointed out, is conveyancing. Conveyancing has remained a largely manual and paper-based process over the years.
- Since 2016, SLA has embarked on the digitisation of about 1 million HDB leases – most of which have now been digitised.
- Building on that, SLA has been engaging various stakeholders on the development of a Digital Conveyancing Portal (DCP) that will provide a fully-integrated, secure, efficient and also a transparent end-to-end conveyancing process.
Advancing Geospatial capabilities
- Finally, SLA is continuing to advance its geospatial capabilities. It will
a. Build up the Geospatial Trusted Centre through the continued provision of data concierge services to even more agencies, and also
b. Expand our centralised geospatial training and project services to more agencies.
- The full OneMap 3D platform - with its rich and integrated layers of geospatial data – will be made available to businesses and individuals in 2021, this year, with new services that aim to help users in making better decisions, such as:
i. drone flight planning and simulation for logistics;
ii. immersive property-viewing experiences for real estate; and also
iii. barrier-free access navigation and wayfinding for citizens.
- Sir, let me now conclude.
- One of the most fundamental purposes of the State – any State – is to hold the fabric of a diverse society, bound up, close-knit together, to uphold justice and the rule of law.
a. Without justice and the rule of law – there will only be force and violence, and the fabric of that society will fray.
b. Our founding fathers saw this with the utmost clarity, and today it continues to be a fundamental tenet of the way we govern.
- Everything that we do in my Ministry is guided by these principles. We have done well so far –
a. Levels of trust amongst citizens remain high
b. Many in the international community continue to see our commitment to the rule of law as one of Singapore’s key distinctions when deciding whether or not to invest in Singapore, whether or not to bring the businesses into Singapore.
- But this is a mission that we cannot succeed at alone.
a. We can only do so, in partnership with all our stakeholders and with all Singaporeans.
- It is on that note that I end my speech by extending our heartfelt thanks to Members of the Bar, the Judiciary, the wider legal fraternity, as well as the many Singaporean individuals and organisations who have come along side us in pursuing this mission;
a. And I look forward to the year ahead, optimistic that with shared resolve we can continue to safeguard this legacy that has been left to us by our founding fathers.
- Thank you, Sir.
Last updated on 02 Mar 2021