As covered in the previous part of our Guide to Singapore’s Legal System, our legal system can be traced to the English model. Singapore’s legal system is comprehensive and covers all aspects of life here in this orderly society. If you are a citizen or a permanent resident, you should be familiar with this topic.
Inherited from the British, the common law is an important part of our legal framework. Singapore’s common law practises judicial precedent, in which, in more layman terms, laws are created by past and present judicial decisions. Because of this, judges are required to consider the reasons for past judicial decisions made by the higher courts (also known as the ratio decidendi). Therefore, you will find that the reasons for decisions made by the Court of Appeal are strictly binding the courts in the hierarchy, which are the High Court, District Court and Magistrates’ Court. Much of Singapore’s law, such as in contract, equity and trust, property and tort laws, are judge-made to a large extent.
The Criminal Law is mainly statutory in nature and is based on the Penal Code, which dictates and explains what is deemed as an offence by Singapore via its 24 chapters, as well as the minimum and maximum punishments for each. All criminal offences are investigated by the police and tried in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code. Proceedings are then heard by the High Court and Court of Appeal.
The High Court tries offence cases that are capital (i.e. punishable by death) and non-capital in nature. A judge presides over such cases and prosecutors from the relevant enforcement agencies and governmental bodies will also be present. Charges are then made upon the defendant who can choose to either plead guilty or not guilty, claim trial or apply for an adjournment. Criminal trials commonly involve pre-trial conferences where the court monitors the investigations and other actions taken to prepare for the trial. While these conferences are not open to the public, the preliminary inquiries that determine if sufficient evidence is available to charge the accused in High Court are. In most cases, the trial is open to the public. Prior to the trial date, the accused will be kept in detainment and whether bail is allowed is up to the High Court.
Generally, the High Court deals with civil claim values that exceed SG$250,000. For claims not exceeding that will be handled by the District Court and amounts not exceeding SG$60,000 will be heard by the Magistrates’ Court. For claims arising from sales contracts and property damage (excluding road accidents) with values up to SG$10,000, or SG$20,000 in some cases, the case will be referred to the Small Claims Tribunal.
Resolution for Businesses
Going to court is an expensive affair, where in some cases, even if you win the court case, you can still take a monetary penalty from the legal services you engage. In addition, proceedings are time-consuming and energy-draining. Therefore, it is important to know what are some other channels available to resolve business conflicts.
Trained by the non-profit Singapore Mediation Centre, mediators are persons from legal or professional fields who, together with both parties’ lawyers, assist the clients in their negotiations to arrive at a solution that is agreeable to all and resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner. The mediator does not decide for the parties, but merely helps the parties in the process. A large majority of the cases through mediation are resolved within one to two working days, saving cost and time. Other areas where mediation can be engaged is such as through the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Relations Department to help resolve employer-employee disputes, the Mediation Centre at the Consumers Association of Singapore helps to resolve consumer-business disputes etc.
Arbitration is like going to court, but it does not take place in a courtroom nor is it public and the decision is made by the arbitrator regardless of the parties agreement. While arbitration in Singapore can resolve almost all types of civil cases, it cannot hear criminal and family law cases.
Disputes Resolution Through Court System
Usually, it is the Civil Courts that hear business disputes. But as explained earlier, certain cases can be heard by the higher courts or the Small Claims Tribunal depending on what the amount or the nature of the case is.
Beyond that, there are also other courts that specialise in certain areas like the Copyright Tribunal that resolves copyright disputes between material owners and users, and the Labour Court that handles cases involving employers and employees when mediation and reconciliation are not effective.
Useful Facts to Remember
- The person making the case is called the Plaintiff
- The person who is being brought to court is called the Defendant
- A Defendant can contact the Plaintiff or his lawyer for an out-of-court settlement
- A ruling is enforceable by law
- In cases of noncompliance, the Court can issue a writ of seizure and sale.
- The writ allows the Plaintiff to seize and sell assets to recover compensation.
- Appeals can be made to higher courts to contest decisions by lower courts