Introduction to Singapore's Legal System

According to Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), Singapore is the 2nd least risky country in Asia in the year 2010. Singapore’s efficient, transparent and extremely sound legal system has been a key enabler for the country’s tremendous growth over the past few years.

While most consider Singapore to be a rule-bound country, calling it a “fine city” (with heavy fines for littering, chewing gum, smoking in public, jaywalking and failing to flush toilets after use, etc.), it is also considered by many to be a very safe nation to live and do business in.  Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Being a former British colony, the legal system in Singapore is based on the English common law. All Singapore citizens are equal in the eyes of law irrespective of their race, religion and creed. Singapore’s law is founded on four pillars – Constitution, Legislation, Subsidiary legislation and Legal decisions made by judges.  These are explained below:

  • The Constitution enshrines the fundamental rights of the individual. It also comprises the fundamental principles and basic framework for the three organs of state – the Executive (consists of the President, Prime Minister and other ministers responsible for government affairs and accountable to the Parliament), the Legislature (consists of the President and Parliament with its legislative authority responsible for enacting legislation) and the Judiciary (the various courts of law which operate independent of the Executive and Legislature).
  • Legislation or statutory laws are written laws enacted by the Singapore Parliament or other bodies that had power to pass such laws in the past in Singapore.
  • Subsidiary legislation or subordinate legislation refers to written law made by ministers, government agencies or statutory boards.  Subsidary legislation is made under the parent statute.
  • Judge-made law is court judgments which are considered a source of law. For instance, property law, contract law and trust law are largely judge-made.

Understanding the Court System

The Chief Justice, who is appointed by the President, is the head of the Judiciary. The Judiciary is made up of the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts. The Supreme Court hears both civil and criminal matters and is separated into the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The Subordinate Courts consist of District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts, Coroners’ Court and Small Claims Tribunals. A Senior District Judge overlooks the Subordinate Courts. It is important that you know which Court to approach when you are suing someone or are being sued.

Court Of Appeal

As its name suggests, the Court of Appeal hears appeals from the decisions of the High Court in both civil and criminal matters. It is the Chief Justice and Judges of Appeal who sit in the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal is usually made up of three judges (the Chief Justice and two Judges of Appeal). However, on certain occasions there may be less than or more than three judges.

High Court

It is the Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court (which can in certain instances include a Judge of Appeal or subject matter experts to provide assistance in certain cases) who comprise the High Court. Normally all proceedings are heard before a single judge.

The High Court hears both criminal and civil cases, as well as appeals from the decisions of District Courts and Magistrates’ Courts. In addition, it hears proceedings concerning admiralty matters, company winding-up, bankruptcy and applications for the admission of advocates and solicitors. The High Court has general supervisory and revisionary jurisdiction over all subordinate courts in any civil or criminal matter. In general, the High Court deals with matters where the value of the subject matter of the claim exceeds 250,000 SGD. It has jurisdiction to try all offences committed in Singapore and in certain cases, try offences committed outside Singapore as well. The High Court tries criminal cases whose punishment involves the death penalty or more than 10 years of imprisonment.

Subordinate Courts

The Subordinate Courts consist of the District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts, Coroners’ Courts and Small Claims Tribunals. The Senior District Judge has overall responsibility for the administration of the Subordinate Courts. In recent years, other courts such as the Family Court, Night Court, Community Court, Syariah Court and Traffic Court have also been added to the Subordinate Courts.

District Court

Civil cases involving claims of more than 60,000 SGD but not exceeding 250,000 SGD are heard before the District Court. This court can also try offences where the maximum imprisonment term is 10 years or below or that are punishable with only a fine. It can sentence a person to (a) a maximum prison sentence of 7 years, (b) impose a maximum fine of up to 10,000 SGD, (c) a caning of up to 12 strokes, (d) attend reformative training or (e) a combination of the above.

Magistrates’ Courts

Civil cases involving claims not exceeding 60,000 SGD are dealt with by the Magistrate Court. This court also tries offences with a maximum imprisonment of 3 years or below or offences punishable by only a fine. It can either sentence a person for a maximum of 2 years or impose a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD or issue a maximum of 6 strokes of the cane.

Juvenile Court

The Juvenile Court deals specifically with offences allegedly committed by “children” (under 14 years of age) or “young persons” (14 to 16 years of age). It covers Beyond Parental Control Cases (BPC), Juvenile Arrest Cases (JAC) and Care & Protection Order Cases (CPO).

Coroners’ Court

This court holds inquiries into any death (a) which occurs in a sudden or unnatural way or (b) by violence, or (c) where the manner in which the death occurred is unknown. Suspected suicides, road traffic and industrial accidents, and death in a prison are some common examples. The Coroner is a Judge of the Subordinate Courts who will conduct investigations with police assistance.

Small Claims Tribunal

The Small Claims Tribunal deals with resolution of small claims between consumers and suppliers, contracts arising from the sale of goods or provision of services, and lease of residential premises not exceeding 2 years. The Tribunal has the jurisdiction to hear claims not exceeding 10,000 SGD but can be raised to 20,000 SGD in certain cases. All claims should be lodged within a year of the dispute and parties usually need not be represented by a lawyer. The Tribunal is presided over by Referees appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Chief Justice.

Family Court

The Family Court deals with adoptions, divorce, children’s issues, division of matrimonial property, personal protection orders, resolution and joint conferences (mediation), spousal and child maintenance, family violence and enforcement of Syariah Court orders.

Night Court

Two night courts operate from Monday to Friday after 6 pm for the benefit of the working public to deal with the large volume of regulatory cases. The first Night Court deals with summonses and notices issued by the various departments such as the Housing and Development Board, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Central Provident Fund Board, and the Registry of Companies and Businesses. The second Night Court deals with road traffic offences brought by the Traffic Police and regulatory offences brought by the Land Transport Authority.

Community Court

The community Court deals with cases relating to youthful offenders (aged 16 to 18), offenders with mental disabilities, neighbourhood disputes, attempted suicide cases, family violence cases, carnal connection offences committed by youthful offenders, abuse and cruelty to animals, cases which impact on race relation issues and selected cases involving offenders ages 65 years and above.

Syariah Court

The Syariah Court administers and resolves marriage and divorce disputes between parties who are either Muslims or who have married under the provisions of Muslim Law.

Traffic Court

The Traffic Court hears and tries traffic offences brought by the Traffic Police as well as the Land Transport Authority.

Types of Law and Courts

Common Law

The Common law, inherited from the British, is an important aspect of the Singapore legal framework. Singapore’s common law is characterized by the practice of judicial precedent. In other words, the law is created by judgments handed down by the courts. In this regard, the judges are only required to apply the ratio decidendi (or the operative reason for the decision) of the higher court within the same hierarchy. Thus, in Singapore, the ratio decidendi found in the decisions of the Singapore Court of Appeal are strictly binding on the Singapore High Court, the District Court and the Magistrates’ Court. Major portions of Singapore law, particularly contract law, equity and trust law, property law and tort law, are largely judge-made, though certain aspects have now been modified to some extent by statutes.

Criminal Law

Singapore’s Criminal Law is largely statutory in nature and can be traced to the exhaustive Penal Code. The Penal Code sets out to explain what constitutes each of the offences listed in its 24 chapters and the minimum as well as maximum punishment for the same. The Penal Code was originally based on Indian Law. This was changed and replaced with the Criminal Procedure Code which is based on law pertaining to criminal procedures in England. All criminal offences under the Penal Code or other statutes are investigated and tried according to the Criminal Procedure Code. Criminal Proceedings in Singapore are heard in the High Court and Court of Appeal.

The High Court deals with:

  • Trial of criminal offences in its original jurisdiction
  • Appeals from the decisions of the Subordinate Courts
  • Revision in criminal proceedings and matters dealt with by the Subordinate Courts and
  • Points of law reserved for the High Court’s consideration by way of special cases submitted by the Subordinate Courts

The Court of Appeal deals with:

  • Appeals against decisions made by the High Court in the exercise of its original criminal jurisdiction and
  • Points of law reserved for its consideration from criminal matters heard by the High Court in its original, appellate or revisionary jurisdiction.

Criminal cases can also be tried at the Criminal Mentions Court. An accused person is produced at a Criminal Mentions Court when the prosecution is ready to formally charge him or her.  A criminal must be charged within 48 hours after his or her arrest and remand. There are two Criminal Mentions Courts, one to deal with District Arrest Cases (DACs) and the other with Magistrates Arrest Cases (MACs).

Offences that can be tried at the High Court fall under the category of capital (i.e. punishable by death) and non-capital cases. The Court is presided over by a Judge. The prosecuting officers from the relevant enforcement and government agencies are also present. A charge (particulars of the offence) is made upon the person/persons who commit the offence, who can either choose to plead guilty, claim trial or apply for an adjournment to another date. Criminal Trials usually involve pre trial conferences. The court actively monitors the progress of the investigations and other steps taken in preparation for the trial. These conferences are not open to public.  Preliminary inquiries – to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to commit the accused for trial in High Court – are open to public. The trial proper is also open to public in most cases. If the accused is to be tried, he will be kept in prison until the date of trial. Bail is available only at the discretion of the High Court.

Civil Law

In general, the High Court deals with matters where the value of the subject matter of the claim exceeds 250,000 SGD. The District Court deals with any claim for which the amount in dispute does not exceed 250,000 SGD and the Magistrates’ Court where the amount in dispute does not exceed 60,000 SGD. The Small Claims Tribunal deals with any claim not exceeding 10,000 SGD (or up to 20,000 SGD where both parties to the dispute agree) over a dispute arising from the contract for the sale of goods or provision of services, or where there is damage to property (except in the case of accidents involving a motor vehicle).

Dispute Resolution Channels for Businesses

Before you go to Court it is important to consider the fact that it may be an expensive as well as time consuming process. Majority of the business disputes are settled out of court system through Mediation and Arbitration procedures.

Mediation

The Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) is a non profit body that trains and selects a panel of neutral mediators who can help parties resolve disputes in a peaceful manner. The mediators are distinguished personnel from the legal or other professional fields who, with the assistance of each party’s lawyer, help the parties negotiate and reach a practical solution that is acceptable to all. The decision is arrived at by the parties and the mediator only helps them; he does not decide for them. 90% of the settled cases are settled within one working day by the SMC and it is reported to have saved significant cost and time. The mediation fee starts from 900 SGD per party per day. The SMC also conducts neutral evaluation (an objective opinion by an industry expert when parties have reached a deadlock in negotiations) when needed.

  • The Labour Relations Department of the Ministry of Manpower helps resolve employer-employee disputes amicably, through mediation.
  • The Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) Mediation Centre helps resolve disputes between a consumer and a business.
  • eAlternative Dispute Resolution is a Singapore Subordinate Courts’ initiative, for parties in an e-commerce transaction to resolve their disputes on the Internet. Disputes include consumer and contractual matters, intellectual property rights between businesses (B2B) , consumers (C2C) or both (B2C, C2B).
  • Financial Industry Disputes Resolution Centre (FIDREC) is an affordable, accessible, impartial and independent centre for consumers to resolve their disputes with financial institutions.
  • Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers (SISV) mediate real estate and construction disputes.
  • DisputeManager.com is an Internet portal that helps settle disputes through online mediation, neutral evaluation, e-settlement and the Singapore Domain Name Dispute Resolution Service (SDRP). Parties can register cases online and arrange for video-conferencing, Internet chats etc. on the website.

Arbitration

Unlike mediation, arbitration is legally binding. It is similar to going to court, except that the process does not take place in a court room and is not open to public. The arbitrator will arrive at a decision himself, irrespective of the parties agreement. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) handles arbitration cases in Singapore. The SIAC can resolve almost any civil case, but does not handle criminal and family law matters. Under the New York Convention, arbitration decisions are enforceable in over 120 countries. The arbitration fee involves the administration fee, arbitrators’ fee and lawyers’ fee which depends on the quantum of dispute and seniority of arbitrators. The SIAC has a panel of over 190 legal and industry experts to choose from or parties can choose their own arbitrators.

Resolving Disputes Through Court System

Usually business disputes are heard in Civil Courts. You can approach the High Court, District Court, Magistrates’ Court or Small Claims Tribunal depending on the amount and nature of claim. There are other specialised Courts like the Copyright Tribunal and Labour Court.

Copyright Tribunal

The Copyright Tribunal helps resolve disputes between copyright owners and users of copyright materials.

Labour Court

The Labour Court deals with issues between employers and employees when they cannot be resolved through mediation or reconciliation.

Useful Facts to Remember about Singapore’s Court Procedures

  •  The person making the claim is the Plaintiff.
  • The person being served or against whom the claim is made is the Defendant.
  • Depending on the nature and amount of the claim a suit is filed in the appropriate Court.
  • If the Defendant wishes to settle the claim and not dispute it, he can contact the Plaintiff or the Plaintiff’s lawyer for an out-of-court settlement.
  • If not, the Court will set a date to hear both sides and evaluate all evidence and proof.
  • There can still be an out-of-court settlement at this point.
  • Once a ruling is made it is enforceable.
  • If the parties refuse to comply, the Court can issue a writ of seizure and sale. This allows the claiming party to seize the assets and sell them to recover his compensation.
  • The Court’s judgment can be contested by making an appeal to the High Court.

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