19 May 2021 Posted in [Speeches]
Ladies and Gentlemen
- It’s a pleasure to be back here again, at the St Petersburg International Legal Forum this year.
- I look forward to sharing views on global issues, in particular, how laws can be used to address situations that have arisen from the current pandemic.
Reflections on COVID-19
- At last year’s forum, I spoke about the legal measures that Singapore had put in place in response to COVID-19. We had a moratorium on contractual obligations in five broad categories of contracts, including leases, licences of commercial and industrial businesses. This was a proactive intervention by the Singapore government to try and achieve a fair and just outcome for all parties involved. This is because people really could not have expected this unprecedented crisis and the consequences.
- The economic situation, and how the law comes in to handle it for the benefit of the society, is an important issue.
Since we spoke last year, the pandemic has continued with varying levels of intensity – it has gone up, it has gone down, but everywhere in the world it continues to be impactful. I wanted to share with the audience, the additional legal measures we have taken.
a. For example, we have put in a Rental Relief Framework, which requires an equitable co-sharing of rental obligations between the Government, landlords and tenants. This is to help small and medium enterprises recover.
b. We’ve simplified the insolvency programme to provide for simpler, faster, lower-cost proceedings. Again, it helps small companies restructure their debts, or wind up the company, if they take the view that the business is no longer viable.
c. There is the Re-Align Framework, which provides a framework for parties to renegotiate contracts signed in pre-COVID days. The assumptions then would have been very different, regarding the business environment.
- Because of these measures, we have been able to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on businesses together with other substantive economic measures. We are, on the whole, in Singapore, on trajectory for a stronger performance, compared with last year, like several other countries. But all of us need to remain watchful of further disruptions and possible setbacks to our activities, or a generally weaker global recovery, depending on the mutations and different strains that are coming out.
Digital Form of Justice in the New Era
- The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of life: How we live, how we work, how we interact with each other.
- One aspect that I wanted to share - Singapore’s experience here - is on how the justice system has been functioning through the pandemic.
- Access to legal assistance, advice, the functioning of the Courts – these are all essential. You can’t put them on suspensory mode. Legal information and applications for legal aid, how you open up the Courts, we have managed to move many of these online, so that users can go for self-help if they can. And where they cannot, for example, they are not educated enough, or they don’t feel confident enough to do this online by themselves, we have arranged for a system of support over the phone, and other traditional means.
- Second, access to legal institutions. The Courts have moved to hold hearings remotely, like in many other places. Later this year, we’ll be tabling legislative amendments to expand the scope of remote, paper and asynchronous hearings. Lawyers and judges can communicate at different times through electronic means without needing to meet, whether in-person or remotely. Accused persons and witnesses will be allowed to testify remotely as well. We will assist those who are less tech-savvy. There will be dedicated video conferencing rooms for litigants who lack the means. We will provide help via telephone, physical counter services, and online live-chats.
Let me also say something about the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institutions. Again, the institutions and systems have moved quickly.
a. Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) has published the SIAC Guide, titled Taking Your Arbitration Remote. This is to help users effectively navigate virtual hearings.
b. The Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC) launched the SIMC COVID-19 Protocol, which provides for a swift and inexpensive route to resolve disputes during the COVID-19 period. Also, it has offered online mediation.
c. Maxwell Chambers, as some of you might know, is a fully integrated premises dedicated to holding arbitrations, and provides modern state-of-the-art facilities. It’s the first building in the world to do that. That has moved to provide support for virtual and hybrid hearings.
a. Recently, Queen Mary University of London and White & Case published their arbitration survey. It’s one of the surveys that is commonly referred to, for people to take reference from.
b. We are happy to see that Singapore has been identified as one of the two most preferred seats of arbitration in the world, together with London, which of course is a traditional powerhouse. And, Singapore is among the top 4 most preferred seats of arbitration across all regions – Africa, South America, the Americas, and so on.
c. SIAC is also the 2nd most preferred arbitral institution in the world, after ICC. It is again among the top 4 arbitral institutions in all regions.
d. Shows that Singapore is accepted by parties around the world.
e. SIAC’s caseload has also increased substantially.
a. The SIMC also achieved record caseloads last year, despite the pandemic. Again, because they moved quickly to adopt to online mediations.
b. One of the reasons SIMC has been successful is, it’s not only faster and more affordable, but more importantly, it allows businesses to preserve relationships.
c. Therefore, the Singapore Convention on Mediation was a significant development. With the Singapore Convention on Mediation, businesses can have greater assurance that mediation can be relied upon and enforced among ratifying countries to settle cross-border commercial disputes, without necessarily having to go for arbitration or litigation.
ADR mechanisms are not mutually exclusive.
a. The Survey which I mentioned earlier, the Queen Mary survey: more respondents preferred to use arbitration in conjunction with other ADR methods, as opposed to using arbitration on a stand-alone basis.
b. SIAC and SIMC therefore offer the Arb-Med-Arb Protocol where parties can try to settle via mediation. And if that fails, continue with arbitration – nothing to lose. And then, if necessary, go back to mediation again.
- I’ve given a snapshot of what we are doing in Singapore, both generally and in specific response to the pandemic.
The fundamental approach to justice and rule of law remains the same:
a. To put in place the right legal frameworks,
b. To ensure that the processes work.
I leave the audience with some questions:
a. How can we ensure that “digital forms of justice” continue to deliver high quality justice, which is fair, affordable and timely?
b. With increased cross-border transactions and disputes, is there a need to ensure that digital forms of justice, in different jurisdictions, are interoperable with one another?
- These are some of the questions that I think jurisdictions around the world have to start thinking about.
- Thank you.
Last updated on 19 May 2021