Keynote Address by Mr Edwin Tong SC, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth and Second Minister for Law at the Litigation Conference Workshop on 22 Apr 2021
22 Apr 2021 Posted in [Speeches]
Mr Gregory Vijayendran SC, President of the Law Society of Singapore
Mr Phang Hsiao Chung, Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court
Ms Felicia Tan, Co-Chair of the Civil Practice Committee of the Law Society
Mr Ian Lim, Co-Chair of the Organising Committee of the Litigation Conference Workshop 2021
Fellow Members of the Bar
Ladies and Gentlemen
- I spoke at the last Litigation Conference Workshop in 2019, and it was right here at MBS.
- We could not have foreseen how dramatically the world would have changed in the two years or so since the last conference, and how a physical event like today’s, would become the exception, rather than the norm.
- With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a year of adaptation. The key question last year was “How do we survive? How do we get out of the pandemic?” I think that still remains a key question.
- But, at the same time, we can also afford to look ahead and ask ourselves “How can we thrive in this post pandemic world?” Perhaps not just about thriving in a post-pandemic world but also thriving now, in the pandemic world as well.
II. Continuously Improving the Civil Justice System
Today, Singapore offers a robust business environment. It is a choice jurisdiction for dispute resolution and business investments:
a. The World Economic Forum placed Singapore 1st out of 141 countries in its 2019 Global Competitiveness Index in terms of the efficiency of the legal framework in settling disputes.
b. The World Justice Project in its Rule of Law Index 2020 ranked Singapore’s civil justice system as the top in Asia, and 6th out of 128 countries worldwide overall.
- Our institutions’ track record further illustrates and tells us that we stand on strong foundations, which we, together with the Bar, the Bench, our members in the academia, have collectively built for Singapore.
Let me just give you some numbers.
a. SICC’s performance was excellent in 2020.
i. There were a total of 30 published judgments issued last year, comprising 25 first instance decisions, and 5 appellate judgements of the Court of Appeal when hearing appeals from decisions of the SICC.
ii. As of 31 January 2021, SICC has a docket of 66 cases.
b. Both SIAC and SIMC’s caseloads also reached record highs in 2020.
i. SIAC received 1,080 new cases, although I would say that quite a number of these were from consolidated cases. But even taking that into account, there is a strong upward trajectory.
ii. SIMC received 43 cases, the highest annual caseload since its inception.
iii. All of that in the context of 20 20, which was the pandemic year.
- The results we see today are the culmination of consistent efforts over many generations to cultivate and strengthen Singapore as a leading international legal and dispute resolution hub – all of us coming together.
- We regularly review our legislative framework to ensure they remain relevant and responsive to the needs of litigants. Ultimately, we serve the business and justice interests of litigants and we must continue to ensure that our rules remain adaptable and relevant to these needs.
- We also implement legislative amendments to keep our dispute resolution services, offerings and infrastructure competitive.
- Over the past year, we have spent some time considering deeply how Singapore, and in the context of today’s topics, especially the legal sector, can stay ahead of the curve in what a post-pandemic era might look like.
- We consulted widely, and in this respect, I would like to thank Mr Vijayendran SC, members of the Law Society and members of the Bar for giving us your views candidly, sharing your views very honestly, and also being very participative each time we seek views on how we can move legal industry forward. I thank the Law Society and members of the Bar for this.
Today, I would like to highlight three initiatives in the pipeline that litigation practitioners might find relevant and pertinent to their practice. Let me summarise what they are:
a. First, an update on civil justice reforms, which is the theme of this year’s Litigation Conference Workshop.
b. Second, let me spend a bit of time telling you about developments in litigation financing.
c. Finally, let me spend some time speaking about a new initiative to support Singapore law practices as we look to the future. To take a leaf out of what Mr Vijayendran said earlier – about speaking, dealing, interacting, transacting virtually in the technology space.
III. Civil Justice Reforms
Rationale for Civil Justice Reforms
On civil justice reforms, let me first say that our fundamental, overarching objectives are really two-fold:
a. First, to advance access to justice for all persons, including SMEs and litigants-in-person, who might sometimes be regarded as the less-advantaged in the context of the litigation space.
b. Second, to ensure fairness, affordability, timeliness, simplicity and, of course, effectiveness for all litigants.
- Whilst our civil justice system is well-regarded, and I think for good reasons, as I explained earlier, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We have to respond ahead of the curve. We have to look ahead and respond now, and not just respond and change when change is forced upon us.
- This is true of many areas affecting the legal profession, be it the area of adoption of legal technology, or a change to the established way of conducting litigation, like you’ve heard from Mr Vijayendran SC earlier. We must anticipate these trends. We must think what strategic changes we need to make to enable our justice system to retain its competitive edge, to remain relevant, and to remain the place that people want to resolve their disputes in.
Let us look at a couple of jurisdictions around us over the last 10 to 20 years.
a. In the UK, fundamental changes to the civil justice system were made in 1999. These changes were essentially aimed at reducing litigation costs, simplifying procedural rules, and modernising technology and terminology. Unnecessary complexities in the litigation process were also removed. These reforms were really motivated by the growing costs, complexity and time-consuming nature of civil litigation in the UK.
b. In 2006, a review of the Civil Justice System was conducted in the Australian State of Victoria. The review similarly focused on reducing litigation costs, simplifying civil procedure rules, and also promoting key principles such as proportionality and efficiency.
- While these reviews took place in different jurisdictions, the key motivations were similar – to modernise the dispute resolution system; to make it easier for litigants; and to reduce costs, and increase efficiency.
- I think we would all agree that these are all hallmarks of a good and effective civil justice system. Disputes that cannot be resolved efficiently without a lot of process, cost, time, pose serious challenges to our ability to ensure access to justice. In my view, the concept of access to justice goes beyond the strict adjudication of right and wrong. Conciliatory resolution should also be considered, where possible.
- Many disagreements can often be resolved amicably if parties come to the table, make serious attempts to understand each other’s position, and come to a compromise, sufficiently early. Our system must develop and encourage that as far as possible. It is undesirable for parties to expend time and money bringing a matter to court, without good reason. Conversely, litigants who may not be well-resourced, but have legitimate reasons to seek recourse through the courts, must have access and cannot be unduly disadvantaged. This ensures that access to justice and the rule of law continue to be the lodestar of our civil justice system.
- When evaluating the competitiveness of our civil justice system, we must also, in my view, look beyond traditional common law jurisdictions. In today’s inter-connected and globalised world, the importance of cross-border transactions is quite self-evident. All of you deal to a greater or lesser extent in cross-border transactions. Many of our key trading partners – China, the European Union, and Taiwan just to name a few – are civil law jurisdictions. To give you one further data point: In 2020, the value of our mechandise trade with China alone was $136.2 billion, almost 15 percent of total mechandise trade.1
- It is imperative that parties in other jurisdictions perceive, and also experience first-hand, the efficiency and accessibility of Singapore’s civil justice system in dealing with cross-border trade. In other words, you have a transacting party from Singapore, which is a common law jurisdiction, increasingly transacting with a civil law jurisdiction partners. We want to ensure that there is no disadvantage to Singapore, as far as the choice of jurisdiction is concerned, and the choice of law.
- In 2016, Chief Justice Menon highlighted that the Supreme Court had, for more than a decade, successfully disposed of at least 85% of all writs filed within 18 months of filing.2
How do we compare with other jurisdictions, including the civil law jurisdictions?
a. In France, it generally takes about 12 to 18 months from the start of the action, to the issuance of a decision3. Appellate proceedings before the Court of Appeal take about 18 months.4
b. In Germany, proceedings at the Federal Supreme Court take about 12 to 18 months, in a similar vein.5
- We have done well. We can regard ourselves as being at the end of the spectrum where efficiency, speed, timeliness, have been the calling card and hallmark of our civil justice system.
- But to retain our competitive edge, to attract investments into our country, to say that this is the choice jurisdiction for all parties, we must look at what else we can do.
Update on the status of Civil Justice Reforms
- In this context, let me now move on to give some updates on the civil justice reforms that I mentioned in my keynote address here two years ago.
At the time, I had shared the rationale for the reforms, outlined the modifications that we were considering to four proposals, after considering feedback from the Bar. These were:
a. The exchange of Affidavits of Evidence in Chief (AEICs) before discovery
b. Single omnibus interlocutory application
c. Scope of discovery and ambit of what must be produced
d. Single joint expert
- I must say that the past 18 to 20 months or so that we have spent on this have been an iterative process. We developed the proposals, involving the joint efforts of the Supreme Court, the Bar and the Ministry, and had very proactive discussions with many members of the Bar. These efforts, in my view, serve as a stellar examples of how key stakeholders can come together, offering different viewpoints and anecdotes, to shape the system that we will need to formulate to tackle tomorrow’s challenges, by updating our civil justice system so that it remains fair, efficient and well-regarded in the years ahead.
- We have been working with the Supreme Court to iron out the finer details and take on board feedback received from the Bar on the Draft Rules during the public consultation process.
- MinLaw and the Supreme Court are targeting to release the public consultation report in the next few months. All of you will be able to see what the proposals were, what the feedback was and the responses to those feedback.
- I understand that the Supreme Court aims to operationalise these new Rules by the fourth quarter of this year. The new Rules will apply to cases that are filed from that date onwards. Current cases will remain on the current regime.
- While fuller details will be shared in the Public Consultation Report in a couple of months, let me share a few key snapshots of areas where we have incorporated views from the Bar, and practitioners such as yourselves.
The first is the single application pending trial.
a. I had spoken about this two years ago, and explained the rationale of the proposal, and how we had envisioned it to work.
b. We had received feedback that some interlocutory matters are inherently incompatible with each other as they do arise at different stages of proceedings. If you look at the writ for example, as a defendant’s counsel, and you take the view that it is inherently flawed, and you want to strike out the writ altogether, you do not need to wait until a single application, or you do not want to wait until a single application, where you combine it with a whole series of other interlocutory reliefs.
c. We will make amendments to exclude applications such as applications for summary judgment and the striking out of the whole action/defence in recognition that some applications should really be filed early before the single application is required to be filed.
Second, let me say something about the production of documents in discovery.
a. There is an initial obligation to produce documents, as you know from the framework of the rules that are being proposed.
b. While there was significant support from the Bar for the proposal, there were also some concerns regarding the question of whether adverse documents ought to be disclosed upfront. The worry was that we would see a surge in specific discovery applications to obtain adverse documents (that are currently obtained as of right), and that adverse documents would then be concealed under the new rules, and you might then have a lot of satellite applications and litigation around disclosure of adverse documents.
c. We considered these views very carefully and we took them on board. Parties’ initial obligation to produce documents will therefore be amended to include all known adverse documents. This includes documents that a party ought reasonably to know are adverse to his case. By the time discovery is made, in the context of both plaintiff and the defendant, the framework of the case and the issues in play, parties will know what adverse documents are. I think it would not be difficult for parties to reasonably know what adverse documents are, i.e. what you ought to know is adverse to your case and what these documents will be.
d. We will also revise the proposed rule which prohibits the production of any document which is part of a party’s private or internal correspondence, except in a special case. We have taken on board the Bar’s concerns that the discovery process could be subverted by parties simply labelling their documents or communications as “confidential”.
e. We do not think that it would be efficient to have a rule that might promote satellite litigation, as I said, around these concepts. Thus, the draft Rules will be revised to state that the Court shall not order production of private or internal correspondence except in a special case, or if such correspondence are known adverse documents – the latter exception being the new one.
Third, let me touch on alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and the Court’s power to order parties to attempt to resolve the dispute by amicable resolution:
a. The Bar did raise concerns with the court’s power to order parties to attend ADR, in light of anecdotal evidence and their own experiences. I think different lawyers will come across different examples and have different experiences. There was anecdotal evidence as to the viability of mandatory mediation, and the unsuitability of ADR in certain cases, such as cases which might very quickly or urgently require interlocutory relief.
b. It will be clarified that in deciding whether to exercise this power, the Court will take into account all relevant circumstances, including whether any of the parties have refused to attempt to resolve the dispute by amicable resolution.
c. Litigation, I think we all know, is often a zero-sum game that resolves disputes at the cost of long-term relationships. Yet maintaining one’s relationships, especially commercial relationships built up over many years, is sometimes more important and valuable than having one’s legal rights strictly adjudicated and vindicated in court.
d. ADR promotes upstream communication and compromise, and that can resolve differences and preserve the relationship between parties at the same time.
e. So the proposed rule is not targeted at cases where amicable resolution might not be effective or where the commencement of the litigation is really to seek interlocutory relief on an urgent basis. It does not oblige parties to make an offer of amicable resolution in all circumstances. Rather, it is generally intended to apply where parties have failed to properly consider amicable resolution, where reasonable, of the dispute, or commenced litigation over minor matters that could be settled outside of court.
f. I think that position is really no different from where we are today. If you pursue a case that in all circumstances would be better off resolved out of Court by ADR, and you refuse to do so without good reason, there are consequences. That’s the rule today anyway.
Lastly, let me touch briefly on party and party costs.
a. The Civil Justice Commission had proposed that a quantum-based scale fixing of recoverable Party-and-Party costs be introduced for liquidated and quantifiable claims, to introduce certainty and transparency in legal costs.
b. I think we all understand why that is so. If you look at the cost schedule upfront and you can predict the likely fees to be incurred, this will enhance access to justice overall. Those were the motivations and I think there were very good reasons behind it.
c. The Bar raised some concerns with the proposal, for reasons including:
i. First, the potential disproportionate recovery of costs in comparison to the cost of work done by parties. I think that is something that would resonate with quite a number of lawyers here.
ii. Second, that the proposed scale may not be reflective of actual costs under the revamped system.
d. As many of you know, we reached out through Law Society, and, in other cases, directly to practitioners to understand the current thinking of different-sized firms and practitioners from different practice areas. Having been in practice myself, I do think that there is merit in studying this further. There were valid points made.
e. Ultimately, as a profession, what I discerned from these consultations, was that many of you do share the same fundamental concerns as my Ministry. We all want to ensure that our system is fair and is accessible. All of us as lawyers want to ensure that the litigants, especially those who are less advantaged, will be able to access our civil justice system. At the same time we need to ensure that there is fairness in terms of remuneration and costs. That these scales accurately reflect the cost structures that you have.
f. As a result of this, we have decided to let the new Rules take its course and then study the issue further. We will consult further with the bar, with all of you, to see how these new rules, when they are rolled out, how they impact your practice, what changes in terms of timing and efficiency they might make, which is the intention, and then circle back to the question of the costs.
Expansion of the Scope of Remote, Paper and Asynchronous Hearings
- Let me now look at something I touched on earlier. My Ministry will table further legislative amendments later this year to streamline the litigation process and prune unnecessary litigation.
The amendments will seek to expand the scope of remote, paper and asynchronous hearings. Let me explain this a little more.
a. Certain proceedings can take place with lawyers and Judges communicating at different times through electronic means without even needing to find a common time to meet, whether in-person or via remotely.
b. We will of course, ensure and clarify that judges or judicial officers can exercise their powers through electronic means, from any location.
c. Accused persons and witnesses will also be allowed to testify remotely.
- In 2019, I said that the integration of technology into various aspects of lawyering was really upon us. Little did I think that two years later, it would be a vision that has really come true.
- Necessity is truly the mother of invention. This pandemic has precipitated a sea change in the way in which we have been accustomed to litigation. In fact, I remarked to someone the other day that I have never practised litigation in this new paradigm. I have not done a hearing or trial on Zoom. I have not made a case to the Court of Appeal on screen.
- So in many ways, we have moved very quickly. The fact that we have been able to do so, and continue to deliver legal services to our stakeholders, best exemplifies the resilience and adaptability of the Bar. We transitioned from a physical court setting, to one that can be largely remote. The ability to have and need for face-to-face interaction with judges and fellow counsel is reduced.
- There are other downsides, as I think we all know. One of which is the lack of an ability to properly mentor a young lawyer when you do not have the face-to-face communication. These are all consequential downsides, but as far as efficiency is concerned, I think we all agree that having the technology and ability to transact, to do hearings is indeed a boon. Together, the Bench, the Bar and Government pulled together, and kept the wheels of justice turning, even during the depths of the circuit breaker.
While there were concerns that remote hearings could exacerbate the access to justice gap for those who are less technologically equipped or savvy, assistance was made available for such individuals, who are usually litigants-in-person:
a. Assistance via telephone, physical counter services in person, online live-chat, and also e-communications were all made available.
b. Litigants-in-person can also ask for their matters to be heard physically, if they don’t have the resources, or if they otherwise felt that they cannot cope fairly with remote attendance.
c. Alternatively, the Family Justice Courts and State Courts have set up dedicated video-conferencing rooms for certain categories of cases to cater to litigants who lack the means or knowledge to connect themselves to video-conferencing facilities.
- There were also concerns that certain procedures are still better off when conducted “face-to-face”, such as cross-examination of witnesses.
- The strategy, in introducing these amendments, is to proceed cautiously. We set up the framework and we will reflect that in the legislative amendments. We will leave the Courts with discretion to decide, because they know best. They can judge best on a case-by-case basis, when might best use of the technology in the circumstances of each case be.
- But you can all agree with me that there will also be many gains as well. Technology has indeed helped to bridge physical distances. It has enabled time and cost savings as the need to travel to court and wait for cases has been avoided. The amendments to expand the scope of remote, paper and asynchronous hearings will allow us to consolidate these gains.
IV. Third Party Funding and Conditional Fee Agreements
- Next, let me say a little bit about Third Party Funding (TPF) and Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs).
- Just as the pandemic has caused us to all move online, another upshot of the pandemic is heightened economic pressure, and focused attention on the need for alternative sources of funding litigation.
- I recently had the privilege of participating in the Third Meeting of the Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts (SIFoCC) just last month. There was a roundtable on the impact, opportunities and regulation of Commercial (Third Party) Litigation Funding.
- This meeting involved over 35 jurisdictions around the world, and more than 70 participants attended this roundtable, most of whom were judges or chief justices from their respective jurisdictions.
- The discussion of this topic at the meeting was very robust and there was a myriad of views exchanged. To my mind, the takeway from the discussions was the increasing significance of litigation funding around the world in these jurisdictions.
- It was clear from the discussions that the key question is how the benefits of these alternative and newer means of funding litigation, can be balanced against the protection of litigants and preservation of the integrity of the justice system. That is the paramount consideration.
What I also learned from speaking with the many luminaries at the Roundtable, was that there is really no “one-size fits all” solution for this. Each jurisdiction must look at their own Bar and civil justice system, and work out what the best solution is. The regulatory models, adopted by different jurisdictions around the world towards third party funding (TPF), are indeed varied. For instance:
a. In some jurisdictions with civil law traditions, TPF is fairly unregulated, as traditional common law objections to maintenance and champerty occupy varying significance in those jurisdictions. In other words, the relevance, significance and impact of maintenance and champerty will be uneven across these civil law jurisdictions.
b. England and Wales rely on self-regulation by an independent body of funders. That is a different model.
c. Australia is considering enhanced regulation and oversight over third party funders, focusing on the funders themselves.
d. In Singapore, in 2017, we introduced a framework for TPF for international arbitration proceedings. We started with that, on the basis that we would try it out with a narrower scope and see what the experiences would tell us. We did so only after many consultations with the legal industry and other stakeholders.
e. The upshot of all of this was that we adopted a “light touch” regulatory approach.
i. Our framework has disclosure as its central tenet and at the heart of what we do, giving precedence to party autonomy and flexibility. Recognising that, at the end of the day, the choice to approach a third-party funder and the relationship that a litigant would have with a third-party funder has to be something that is driven by party autonomy. It is a choice that they make.
ii. Our legislative regulation is supplemented also by soft laws promulgated by relevant institutions in Singapore, such as the Law Society’s Guidance Note.
iii. Two to three years have passed since we put the framework in place. We have assessed that this does strike the right balance with the need for regulation, to protect litigants and also preserve the integrity of the justice system.
iv. As Singapore is an international dispute resolution hub and we want international users to come into Singapore, many stakeholders who use the system may not be within our jurisdiction. We have therefore chosen to take an approach that is both effective in ensuring that our paramount considerations are looked after, and sufficiently flexible and adaptable.
- Feedback received so far from the legal and arbitration communities, including many in the audience, the businesses who use them and funders who provide the funding, has been positive so far. Law practices gave feedback that the reforms have been useful and beneficial, and funders have seen an upturn in requests for funding in Singapore. There has also been support for Singapore’s regulatory framework and the approach that has been taken towards TPF.
We will continue to implement reforms to the litigation funding landscape, to strengthen our legal services and also serve the public interest. Let me highlight a few immediate initiatives.
a. First, we are extending the TPF framework to domestic arbitration proceedings, to certain proceedings in the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), and also to related mediation proceedings.
b. Second, we are currently working to allow CFAs in the same categories of proceedings as the extended TPF proceedings. We will consider allow CFAs in the same three categories that I mentioned.
c. Third, we are concurrently studying how CFAs may be allowed for certain categories of domestic proceedings. In that regard, considerations in domestic proceedings are quite different from the international arbitration proceedings. They merit a different kind of approach and warrant a separate study. To give you an example, some litigants in domestic proceedings are more financially vulnerable and less sophisticated than those in the international, commercial arena. More safeguards might be warranted in those cases.
- While we have historically been more conservative in the area of litigation funding, we are taking incremental, considered and judicious steps and looking at the landscape holistically. We are looking at what we can do, not just at the end of the spectrum with international cases, but also at the other end of the spectrum with domestic cases, and the impact such funding arrangements might have on access to justice.
As a first step, it is hoped that these reforms will:
a. Level the playing field for Singapore lawyers vis-à-vis foreign lawyers. Many of you come up against foreign and international counsel. They might well operate on different rules. We want to ensure that, within the considerations that I have outlined, that the playing field as far as your role in these cases is concerned, can be levelled.
b. Meet demand for additional, alternative funding arrangements by commercial litigants. Our sense is that there has been a demand.
c. Allow litigants, including businesses with financial difficulties, who might otherwise have a meritorious claim, to pursue them.
- It is important, in my view, for lawyers and business to understand the opportunities for litigation funding to assist in times of economic uncertainty. We will continue with our dialogues and engagements with the relevant stakeholders, including members of the Bar, on these reforms.
- We will also continue to review the existing frameworks to identify further areas that might need refinement and adjustment as we move forward with these proposals.
- Ultimately, we are confident that these systemic changes will put Singapore and our legal industry on a stronger footing for the post-pandemic era by injecting more flexibility into the civil justice system.
V. Legal Technology Platform
- Let me now pivot to another topic, which is the use of legal technology. I made some announcements on a legal technology platform in Parliament a few months ago.
- Let me first take a step back and consider what this means from the operational perspective. Many of you probably have a lot more first-hand experience than I have on digital lawyering.
- First, I think we all agree that it has been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. Using virtual tools to communicate are now the norm in almost every facet of life. Digital tools have become quite indispensable.
Second, long-term trends that predated the pandemic persist. In other words, these are trends that existed even before the disruption of the pandemic.
a. There are cost pressures on the client side. I think all of you running a business and looking at the bottom line have that experience. These pressures have been magnified by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in badly affected industries.
b. Clients are also more involved, and they want to be involved, in their litigation process. They want to be updated on the fly quickly. They won’t wait until you come back from a pre-trial conference or hearing to do a letter and explain what the outcome is. So, document sharing and matter updates will be increasingly taxing on time, but I think will be increasingly important to keep that touchpoint with clients.
Third, I think we all agree there is always room to optimise the way matters are managed, and to hone existing litigation strategies.
a. Basic case management is sometimes overlooked, in the hustle and bustle of practice, especially when we have to meet tight deadlines.
b. Ensuring the right person is on the job and having updated checklists and calendars minimises the scope for human error.
c. On the more cutting-edge end of the spectrum, moving away from just case management, litigation analytics technology has been on the rise. International litigation outfits like Holman Fenwick (HFW) and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) have been partnering with tech firms to provide insights. Legaltech giants like Lexis Nexis are also expanding their litigation analytics offerings. I think soon, these tools, will soon become a mainstay and will help, not replace, litigation lawyers in their craft.
- Law practices that can harness technology, take advantage of it and use it well in their own practices will benefit greatly.
- As the Chief Justice mentioned in his Opening of the Legal Year speech in January, SAL is working hard to develop the “next-generation LawNet”, which will “offer improved search algorithms and personalised features for better research productivity.”
- SAL is an important player in providing support to the industry in scaling up our tech capabilities, and in tandem with their efforts, MinLaw will be happy to support and collaborate with members of the Bar to ensure that this legal tech platform can best be suited to the demands and rigours of your practice and best be utilised.
- We started off a few years ago with a funding scheme that provides quite substantive support (up to 80%) for firms to adopt technology.
- Last year, MinLaw launched the Technology and Innovation Roadmap (TIR) to provide law firms an overview of how they could leverage technology to respond to the changing demand for legal services.
- We engaged widely with lawyers from different sized firms. That is because we appreciate that the demands and needs of users of the technology platform between a small firm, medium-sized firm and a large firm will differ. We spoke to in-house counsel, and associations, such as LawSoc, SCCA, SAL.
- We have heard the challenges faced by small and medium-sized firms – the time, effort and expertise needed to update, upgrade and maintain tech platforms. We have also heard from many lawyers that they need the various tools and platforms to be able to be used daily on an almost intuitive basis.
- This is the wishlist from many lawyers that we spoke to.
- This is why my Ministry has embarked on an initiative to bring together the industry and co-develop with you a Legal Tech Platform that will link to some of the popular existing technology platforms used by law firms.
- We do not want to reinvent the wheel. We want to study the landscape and ensure that what we develop will be something that will be integratable with systems that you already have, as far as possible.
The Platform is, first and foremost, a matters management tool.
a. Lawyers can start a new matter within a matter of minutes and lay out the roadmap of how they intend to litigate a case.
b. Firms can create “matter templates” that can be utilised when a new matter arises. It sounds so archaic to have a matter template. This was one of the first things I learned when I was a pupil 25 years ago. But even in a modern setting, I think there is value.
i. For example, an SIAC arbitration template might provide a roadmap of steps to be taken, integrated with the 2016 SIAC Rules. It could prompt you when something is due, when you need to file a case and when you need to respond to the arbitrators.
ii. You can create a template for contractual debt claims, that provides a roadmap of steps that you wish to curate and contextualise to your own practice, such as laying out procedural requirements as tasks and checklists to fulfil.
iii. I must caution to add that there is no substitute for the White Book, that continues to be the go-to resource. But these technology platforms and matters management templates provide a basis for reminders and a checklist for you to see what the road ahead will look like.
c. Tasks can be assigned to specific individuals in the firm, so responsibilities and deadline are clear from the outset using this case management tool.
- On top of this, the intention is for the Platform to connect to the firm’s existing software, such as Document Management Solutions. This aims to ensure seamless connectivity between your specific matter and your documents, whether you store it on the cloud or otherwise, so that there is interconnectivity and importantly, seamlessness.
- One thing that I learned in practice is that we lawyers don’t really want to fiddle with the buttons or have to do maintenance. We just want it to work. That was the brief that we have been given to our team, which is trying to integrate this platform and build it with your input. I do not want to overpromise but we will try and do this as far as we can, because we know that we do not want to have to fiddle, maintain and upgrade it.
The intention is for the platform to also serve as a place to correspond with your clients.
a. It will consolidate your email and other forms of electronic communications, but only if you choose to, and if you provide the necessary permissions. At the end of the day, client confidentiality remains a paramount consideration.
b. If you choose to link it up, you can connect your Zoom account, start video calls from within the Platform and have access to the facilities and the tools on the same platform. So while having your discussions with your clients, you may have documents with you, you can pull up your management roadmap and work out what it is that you need to be doing and what the deadlines might look like.
- Quite importantly, the Ministry views the Platform as a continuing co-development effort with industry. We cannot assume that this is going to be static. Technology waits for no one so we have to co-develop and keep having that discussion. This means that we will seek views from the industry on further long-term needs in terms of integrations and functionality to evolve the Platform based on SLPs’ needs.
- Some of you have been coming forward, and have been invited to smaller-scale feedback sessions. We started on a smaller scale, so that we are able to curate the needs of the specific practice. We have given ourselves a bit of time and a runway to look at how we can do this more carefully, with each of the firms. That gives us a lot more in-depth knowledge of the existing systems. If you wish to have your views taken down on this, please do come connect with us, and we’ll take them onboard.
- I must say that this is an ambitious and unique project to build a platform that can connect our legal fraternity with related services, like Government agencies, and in due course, also with each other.
- I think it is ambitious and not something that we have embarked on before. But the experience of the pandemic in 2020 and what we have seen what other jurisdictions go through has given us the assurance that this really is the way to go.
- I think lawyers do need to embrace technology and my Ministry will do what we can to give lawyers a boost and put you onto this platform with the least possible resistance. But, at the end of the day, it is something that you must want to do.
- Let me now conclude. We have very challenging times ahead of us, no one can disagree with that. The virus continues to be a challenge, and each time we think it is under control, in other parts of the world, you will see the challenges have mutated.
- My Ministry has spent a good part of last year, looking at what we think we can do in a post-pandemic world. I encourage all of you to do the same thing.
- In my view, there is a lot that we can do, to enhance our legal services offerings. There is much that can be done. If we do it well and we do it together, we can build a first-class legal jurisdiction, a place where neutrality, governance, rule of law remain our hallmark characteristics.
We will reap substantial benefits and put ourselves in a much stronger position than we are in today.
a. A position where we can grow not just as a legal fraternity but as a society and an economy.
b. A position where we can compete with others across the globe for work, where we will be second-to-none as far as competition for legal services is concerned.
c. A position from which we can create opportunities for our law firms and jobs for our lawyers, so that the Bar continues to be strengthened by law graduates who add value to the Bar. We must create space at the Bar for these graduates.
- This task however, would not be possible without the support of all our stakeholders, and I wish to thank the Bar, the Bench, members of the academia, the various agencies, institutions, SAL etc, for working with us.
- In my two and a half years in Government, the one takeaway that I have from this Ministry is that we are blessed in Singapore to we see each other as true partners in developing the legal industry and legal services. We all see that there is benefit in improving the collective whole. It’s only because we work so closely together that we can achieve so much more.
- We must be constantly thinking about what the future might hold for us in the immediate future. The post-pandemic world, which will be quite different. There are challenges, but there are also very many opportunities for us to grasp.
- Thank you again for having me back here. It is a pleasure to be back here with friends from the Bar, even if we have to speak across zones and barriers. It is very good to have that human interaction back.
- Thank you very much everyone and have a very good morning.
1. Department of Statistics. Mechandise Trade Performance with Major Trading Partners, 2020 (https://www.singstat.gov.sg/modules/infographics/singapore-international-trade). ↩
2. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. “The Rule of Law and the SICC”. 10 January 2018 (https://www.sicc.gov.sg/docs/default-source/modules-document/news-and-article/b_58692c78-fc83-48e0-8da9-258928974ffc.pdf). ↩
3. Baker Mckenzie. Dispute Resolution Around the World: France. 2011. (https://www.bakermckenzie.com/-/media/files/insight/publications/2016/10/dratw/dratw_france_2011.pdf?la=en). ↩
4. Laude Esquier Champey, France: Litigation & Dispute Resolution Laws and Regulations 2021 (https://iclg.com/practice-areas/litigation-and-dispute-resolution-laws-and-regulations/france). ↩
5. Baker Mckenzie. Dispute Resolution Around the World: Germany. 2011. (https://www.bakermckenzie.com/-/media/files/insight/publications/2016/10/dratw/dratw_germany_2011.pdf?la=en). ↩
Last updated on 22 Apr 2021