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An interview with Justice Quentin Loh of the Singapore High Court

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Quentin Loh
Singapore High Court, Singapore
sicc_development@supcourt.gov.sg

 

How has your jurisdiction and your own court coped with Covid-19? Have you experienced delays or backlog and when do you assess your court will be able to catch up?

The measures taken by the Singapore Judiciary in response to Covid-19 may be viewed in three stages:

  • ‘safe distancing measures’ implemented prior to the introduction of the ‘Circuit Breaker’ (CB) in Singapore on 7 April 2020;
  • measures for the conduct of hearings during the CB period which lasted until 1 June 2020; and
  • measures applicable during Singapore’s Three-Phased Exit from CB with Phase One: Safe Re-opening starting on 2 June 2020 and Phase Two: Safe Transition starting on 19 June 2020.

At time of writing, Singapore is still in Phase Two with no date indicated yet for the transition to the final Phase Three: Safe Nation.

These measures relate to the Supreme Court (comprising the Court of Appeal and the High Court), the family justice courts (FJC) and the state courts. The Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) is a division of the High Court.

Pre-Circuit Breaker – Safe Distancing Measures (between 26 March to 7 April 2020)

On 26 March 2020, the Chief Justice issued a message[1] on the various precautionary measures put in place by the various courts to ensure the continuity of court operations and services, while safeguarding the health and safety of practitioners, court users and court officers. The measures mentioned in the Chief Justice’s message include the following:

Business continuity measures

The judges, judicial officers and staff of the Supreme Court, family justice courts and state courts were physically segregated into two teams. Other measures implemented were telecommuting, staggered working and lunch hours, safe distancing at the workplace and regular temperature taking. All of these measures were in accordance with the advisories and directives of relevant government agencies. In the Supreme Court, where a matter was heard by judges from both teams (for instance, in certain Court of Appeal hearings), the judges from one team will join the hearing by video conference.

Increased cleaning of court premises

To reduce the risk of transmission, cleaning frequency of common areas in the court buildings such as lobbies, registration counters, restrooms and lifts was increased. Frequent points of contact such as lift buttons were disinfected on an hourly basis.

Declaration before entry

Since 3 February 2020, all practitioners, court users and visitors are required to complete a declaration form (which has since evolved into a national digital check-in system known as SafeEntry) before they are permitted to enter the court building. An individual will not be allowed into the court building if he or she:

  • is serving a Quarantine Order;
  • is serving a Stay-Home Notice;
  • is serving a Leave of Absence;
  • has been in contact within the last 14 days with a person who is confirmed or suspected to be infected with Covid-19;
  • has travelled overseas within the last 14 days;/li>
  • has been in close contact with a person who has been overseas within the last 14 days (for instance, by sharing the same residence or workplace) and has not implemented measures to ensure safe distancing from that person; and/or
  • is feeling unwell and has a fever and/or flu-like symptoms (however mild).

Practitioners and court users who are not permitted to enter the court building to attend scheduled hearings may be able to attend hearings by video conference or otherwise seek an adjournment of the hearing using eLitigation, ICMS, CJTS, iFAMS or other online case management systems (whichever is applicable).

The Chief Justice’s message was immediately followed the next day, on 27 March 2020, by the Registrar’s Circular No. 3 of 2020, ‘Information on measures and other matters relating to Covid-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) for court users and visitors to the Supreme Court’.[2] The Chief Justice had directed that the use of electronic means of communication to conduct hearings be enhanced, to ensure that court services and hearings remain available and uninterrupted as far as possible while reducing the level of person-to-person contact.

With effect from 1 April 2020, selected hearings in the Supreme Court of Singapore (including the SICC) would be conducted by video conferencing or where appropriate, telephone conferencing. Details on the use of video conferencing and telephone conferencing for the different types of hearings in the Supreme Court were also provided.

A guide on the use of video conferencing and telephone conferencing to attend hearings was developed and posted to the Supreme Court website for easy reference.[3] There was a clear reminder that unauthorised audio or visual recording of hearings is strictly prohibited, and that in appropriate cases, the court may require an undertaking that no such recording will be made, with attention drawn to section 5 of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 (Act No. 19 of 2016) regarding contempt of court by unauthorised recordings.

Where hearings are conducted by video conferencing, all court rules and practices on dress and etiquette will continue to apply. However, it will not be necessary to stand and/or bow to the court at the start or end of the hearing or to stand when addressing the court, when otherwise required to do so for physical attendance.

Where the court determines that physical attendance before the court is appropriate, no more than two lawyers/litigants per party may appear at the hearing. Practice trainees, interns, legal executives and other assistants should not be in attendance. If a party requires additional attendees, it should write to the court on its request for an exemption for the named additional attendees, no later than one working day before the hearing date. The court may, in its discretion, grant an exemption to allow the named additional attendees to attend physically and/or by video conferencing.

Conduct of hearings during the Circuit Breaker Period (between 7 April and 1 June 2020)

A Registrar’s Circular was issued on 5 April 2020 to address the situation on an urgent basis: ‘Circular No. 4 Of 2020: Updates On Measures Relating To Covid-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) From 7 April 2020 to 4 May 2020’.[4]

Every matter scheduled for hearing in the Supreme Court from 7 April 2020 to 4 May 2020 (the relevant period) – including appeals, trials, applications (interlocutory or otherwise), case management conferences and pre-trial conferences – were adjourned to a date to be fixed, unless the matter is assessed to be essential and urgent. The matters which may be considered essential and urgent were set out in Schedule 1 of the Circular.

The Registry would inform parties by midday 6 April 2020 if their matters would be heard from 7 April 2020 to 14 April 2020 (inclusive). For matters that would be heard on or after 15 April 2020, parties would be notified as soon as possible and, in any event, no later than five working days from the scheduled hearing date. The court would continue to deliver judgments during the relevant period.

Any hearing conducted during the relevant period would be conducted through electronic means of communication, unless otherwise directed by the court. Parties were to comply with all safe distancing and other applicable measures in the preparation, presentation and conduct of hearings during the relevant period.

Attendance before the Duty Judge or Duty Registrar in relation to matters falling within Schedule 1 to the Registrar’s Circular would continue to be dealt with during the relevant period in accordance with the Supreme Court Practice Directions and Registrar’s Circular No. 3 of 2020. Any request for the urgent hearing of any matter which did not fall within Schedule 1 must be accompanied by reasons explaining why the matter was essential and urgent. In making such a request, parties should note the following:

  • in determining whether a matter is essential and urgent, the court would have regard to, among other things, whether the determination of the outcome of the matter is time sensitive, and whether there was any legal requirement for the matter to be heard within any timeframe;
  • a matter was not essential and urgent merely because it was convenient for the parties to have the matter heard early or as scheduled; and
  • parties should not make the request if the preparation, presentation and conduct of the hearing would entail parties breaching safe distancing measures (eg, if lawyers would have to come into close physical proximity with one another, their staff or their clients). Parties would be required to satisfy the court that measures were in place to avoid this.

The court may, in its discretion, grant a request for urgent hearing if the matter was assessed by the court to be essential and urgent.

With effect from 7 April 2020 until further notice, where a hearing is conducted by means of video conferencing or telephone conferencing using a remote communication technology approved by the Chief Justice or authorised by the court, all recordings made of the hearing which have been authorised by the court using such remote communication technology will constitute the official record of hearing for the purposes of Order 38A Rule 1 of the Rules of Court.

The Supreme Court Registry and other court services would continue to operate during the relevant period to provide court services for essential and urgent matters. Except where it related to essential and urgent matters during the relevant period, any request for service by the court process server, for inspection of a case file in person, for taking of hard copies of documents or for any enforcement action would not be processed.

Parties and their representatives should not visit the court premises during the relevant period to tender documents in hard copy or in any media storage devices, including CD-ROMs. Any requirement to tender to the court any hard copies of documents pursuant to the Rules of Court, the Supreme Court Practice Directions or the court’s directions should, during the relevant period, be complied with by electronically filing or submitting the soft copies (by email or otherwise) within the applicable timelines. If the aforesaid soft copies were submitted in any media storage devices, including CD-ROMs, it should be posted by advice of receipt (AR) registered post and the applicable timelines should be deemed to have been complied with if it is posted by the last day of the timeline. The court might issue directions for hard copies of the aforesaid to be tendered after the relevant period. Parties might continue to file documents electronically through the eLitigation system and send by AR registered post soft copy documents contained in CD-ROMs (as may be applicable) to the court during the relevant period.

The following would apply in relation to timelines for compliance under the Rules of Court, the Supreme Court Practice Directions or pursuant to the Court’s directions:

  • where matters scheduled for hearing during the relevant period are adjourned, parties could write to the court to request an extension of time; and
  • for all other matters, the applicable timelines will continue to apply but parties could write to the court to request an extension of time, if necessary.

All matters scheduled for hearing after the relevant period would continue as scheduled, unless otherwise directed by the court.

On 21 April 2020, when it was announced that the Circuit Breaker measures would be intensified and extended to 1 June 2020 in order to further reduce transmission of Covid-19, the Chief Justice issued another message stating that the relevant period defined in Registrar’s Circular No. 4 of 2020 was extended to 1 June 2020.[5] The courts would continue to hear only essential and urgent matters, and hearings for all other matters would be adjourned until the end of the extended relevant period. Unless there was a further extension, the courts would resume hearing most matters a week after the end of the extended relevant period (that is, from 8 June 2020).

Significantly, the Chief Justice announced that, in order to dispose of at least some of the matters that had accumulated during the extended relevant period, the Supreme Court would not enter its usual recess in June 2020. The state courts and family justice courts would likewise continue hearing matters in June without their usual break.

He went on to mention that the judiciary had implemented alternatives to physical hearings so as to sustain access to justice while maintaining safe distancing. Over the course of the relevant period, the courts had conducted the majority of hearings using remote communication technology such as Zoom.

The Chief Justice went on to add that when court hearings and services resumed after the extended relevant period, practitioners and court users could expect that certain safeguards to prevent transmission of Covid-19 might remain in place. In particular, it was likely that some hearings would continue to be heard by way of video or teleconferencing.

Conduct of hearings during Phase One: Safe Re-opening and Phase Two: Safe Transition (from 2 June 2020 onwards)

Singapore exited the Circuit Breaker into Phase One on 2 June 2020, and then to Phase Two on 19 June. Singapore adopted a controlled approach to the safe resumption of activities over three phases: first, ‘Safe Re-opening’; second, ‘Safe Transition’; and third, ‘Safe Nation’.

The Chief Justice issued another message on 29 May 2020 titled ‘The Judiciary’s Response to the Exit of the ‘Circuit Breaker’ Period’.[6] He expressed his appreciation for the support and cooperation of the Bar, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Singapore Prisons and all court users during the Circuit Breaker period, particularly in their swift acceptance and adoption of the use of video and teleconferencing for the conduct of hearings. That has been instrumental to the Courts’ ability to sustain access to justice for essential and urgent matters over that two-month period, while ensuring full compliance with the necessary safe distancing requirements. The Chief Justice mentioned the following in his message:

Resumption of hearings

Hearings for most cases resumed from 8 June 2020. In order to facilitate the disposal of matters that had accumulated during the Circuit Breaker period, the Chief Justice reiterated that the Supreme Court would not enter its usual recess in June. Likewise, the state courts and the family justice courts would continue to hear matters in June.

Remote hearings

There was generally positive feedback on the use of video and teleconferencing for the conduct of hearings during the Circuit Breaker period. There was general consensus that remote hearings were convenient, cost and time-efficient, and represented an important means by which the courts could sustain access to justice during the pandemic and hopefully enhance this into the future. The courts would closely monitor the use of remote hearings, gather feedback and suggestions, and continue to refine and improve the process. In light of the need for caution as the courts progressively lift the Circuit Breaker measures, and given the general success in the conduct of remote hearings thus far, the courts would continue to use video and teleconferencing for various hearings after 1 June 2020.

At the same time, the Courts were deeply conscious that certain court users – and in particular some litigants-in-person (LIPs) – may lack access to, or otherwise experience difficulty participating in, remote hearings. Court users with such difficulties should notify the relevant court’s registry ahead of the hearing. LIPs at the FJC who are unable to attend Zoom hearings from their homes may do so at the designated ‘Zoom Rooms’ located on FJC’s premises, which have Zoom connections to the relevant family judge.

Remote interpretation services are also available at each court to support the conduct of remote hearings.

Physical hearings

Where the court requires or permits physical attendance at a hearing, safe distancing and other appropriate measures would be in place to minimise the risk of transmission of Covid-19. All practitioners and court users must wear masks at all times while in the court premises, unless otherwise notified by the court.

To reduce the number of persons in a courtroom and at waiting areas at any one time, hearings will be scheduled with staggered timings. No more than two lawyers/litigants per party may appear at a hearing. If a party requires more than two attendees, that party should make a request for exemption to the court ahead of the hearing.

Health and safety protocols

As was the practice immediately before the Circuit Breaker period, all visitors to the courts will be subject to temperature screenings and be required to make health/isolation order declarations digitally before they enter the court premises. Visitors will not be permitted to enter if they are unwell or if they have had contact with any confirmed/suspected cases within the last 14 days. In addition, all visitors must ‘check in’ using the SafeEntry application when entering the court building and ‘check out’ on the same application when exiting. Court users should also download and activate the TraceTogether application. These applications will facilitate contact tracing should the need arise.

Intensive cleaning and disinfection of all courtrooms, chambers and common areas in the court buildings will continue. Safe distancing measures such as floor markers in queue lines at service counters, and spaced-out seating arrangements in courtrooms and common areas, will continue to be in place. Safety management officers will be on the ground to ensure compliance with these measures.

The Supreme Court has set aside an area in level B1 for the use of practitioners who require space to work or rest. Practitioners in the State Courts may use the Bar Room for these purposes. All practitioners and court users must continue to practise safe distancing within the court premises at all times. We will continue to work with the Law Society to identify and address their needs.

SGUnited Mediation Initiative

In light of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses and individuals are facing challenges. In a time of unprecedented disruption, to help litigants move on quickly from the disruption and uncertain economic outlook, the Supreme Court, in collaboration with the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC), had come together to launch the SGUnited Mediation Initiative to refer suitable cases in the Supreme Court for mediation at no charge to parties. Under this initiative, from 1 July 2020 to 31 August 2020, cases will be fixed for mediation to assist litigants to resolve their disputes at SMC.

Under the SGUnited Mediation Initiative, the Supreme Court would identify suitable cases and invite parties to consider mediation under the Initiative. Parties in these cases were contacted in June. A pre-trial conference would be held for the court to discuss the option of mediation under the initiative, if necessary. If parties agree to mediate, the Supreme Court would refer parties to SMC for mediation under the initiative. Only cases referred by the Supreme Court to SMC would qualify for free mediation under the initiative. Once a case was referred to SMC under the initiative, SMC would arrange a date for the mediation and assign a volunteer mediator(s) to mediate the case.

Finally, where the SICC is concerned, as hearings have been conducted remotely and continue to be conducted remotely, there has been no build-up of cases.

Does your legislation already allows for civil and commercial matters (excluding criminal and family matters) (i) communication with the judiciary by electronic means, (ii) digital processing of the case file (ie, full digitalisation and accessible electronically by the parties, electronic filing and others), and use of (iii) video conferencing and teleconferencing?

Singapore legislation does provide for the following in relation to civil and commercial matters (excluding criminal and family matters):

  • communication with the judiciary by electronic means;
  • digital processing of the case file (ie, full digitalisation and accessible electronically by the parties, including electronic filing); and
  • use of video conferencing and teleconferencing.

As regards ‘communication with the judiciary by electronic means’, section 8A of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act states that ‘the court [ie, the Court of Appeal or the High Court] may conduct the hearing of any matter or proceeding through a live video link, a live television link or any other electronic means of communication’.

Similarly, section 8 of the State Courts Act states that ‘a State Court may conduct the hearing of any matter or proceeding through a live video link, a live television link or any other electronic means of communication’.

As regards ‘digital processing of the case file (ie, full digitalisation and accessible electronically by the parties, including electronic filing)’, section 36A of the Evidence Act empowers the making of subsidiary legislation to provide for ‘the filing, receiving and recording of evidence and documents in court by the use of information technology in such form, manner or method as may be prescribed, including rules to modify such provisions of [the Evidence Act] as may be necessary for the purpose of facilitating the use of electronic filing of documents in court’. The relevant rules may be found at Order 63 of the Rules of Court and Division 68 of Part 18 of the Family Justice Rules 2014.

As regards the ‘use of video conferencing and teleconferencing’, section 62A of the Evidence Act enables a person, with leave of the court, to give evidence through a live video or live television link in any civil proceedings, in certain circumstances, such as when ‘it is expressly agreed between the parties to the proceedings that evidence may be so given’, when ‘the witness is outside Singapore’, or when ‘the court is satisfied that it is expedient in the interests of justice to do so’.

In addition, we would like to mention that the Integrated Electronic Litigation System (eLitigation) was launched in 2013 and can be used to file the Supreme Court's court documents. Some of the key benefits of eLitigation include:

  • convenient and secure access to the web-based service via Singpass;
  • filing can be completed online or saved for submission at a later time;
  • use of dynamic electronic court forms in place of PDF;
  • full access to all documents in a case as long as it remains active;
  • management of case files through email and SMS reminder alerts; and
  • calendaring and Hearing Management Module to allow for greater flexibility in the selection of hearing dates.

Section 8A of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act has been relied on by the SICC’s International Judges to conduct case management conferences (CMCs) and the hearing of certain interlocutory applications by live video link or live television link even before the start of the Covid-19 situation. Since the introduction of Covid-19 travel restrictions, the SICC’s international judges have been conducting all hearings by live video link or live television link, usually through the remote communication technology called Zoom.

While the travel restrictions remain in force, all international judges who hear cases in the SICC or the Court of Appeal hear those proceedings by live video link or live television link under section 8A of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, read with section 28(10)(a) of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020.

Similarly, while the travel restrictions remain in force:

  • foreign witnesses (if permitted under the law of the jurisdiction in which the witness is located) may give evidence from overseas by live video link or live television link;
  • foreign lawyers and foreign law experts registered under sections 36P and 36PA of the Legal Profession Act may participate in SICC proceedings by live video link or live television lin;, and
  • foreign parties may apply to the court to view, by remote communication technology, SICC proceedings conducted by live video link or live television link.

Has your legislator enacted special legislation due to Covid-19 to allow for the measures mentioned in the first question?

The Singapore Parliament passed the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 to provide, among other things, for additional measures to facilitate the conduct of court proceedings using remote communication technology. The relevant Part of this Act is Part 5 (comprising section 28), which came into effect on 7 April 2020. Under section 28(10)(a) of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, during the ‘specified period’ mentioned in section 28(15) of that Act, despite any written law or rule of law requiring the exercise of the jurisdiction or power of a court in a court house, a court may exercise its jurisdiction and powers if the court proceedings are conducted using a remote communication technology that is approved by the Chief Justice. This allows court proceedings to be conducted from outside court premises, while the judge, lawyers and parties are all working from home.

Part 2 of the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 and the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Temporary Relief for Inability to Perform Contracts) Regulations 2020 also provide temporary relief from court proceedings for parties that are unable to perform certain contracts due to Covid-19 measures.

Were other measures put in place to replace the normal court process?

Besides remote hearings, we have implemented safe distancing measures for physical hearings and other health and safety protocols as earlier described in the reply to the first question.

If the case is processed digitally, what tools are you using to process the case (eg, for communication, bundles, filings, etc)

As mentioned in the reply to the second question, we use a platform named eLitigation for digital processing.

In addition, parties may email the court and starting from the Circuit Breaker period, the Registry employed the use of e-signatures whenever appropriate, which reduced internal manual work processes and allowed work items to be routed and dealt with electronically. Nevertheless, hard copy documents may still be tendered, if necessary.

Whenever appropriate, the court will issue directions by correspondence, such as those for ex parte applications, by consent applications and pre-trial conferences, instead of requiring attendance. Such ‘paper hearings’ have been conducted even before the Circuit Breaker period but were found to be particularly useful during that period.

Steps were taken to address the possibility of additional documents being tendered in the course of the hearing. The Court of Appeal Registry would send correspondence to the parties in advance to remind the parties that the court does not envisage any further documents being tendered, and that advance notice must be given (in writing) of any additional document sought to be tendered. On the day of the hearing, the officer responsible for the administration of proceedings would seek parties’ confirmation just prior to the hearing that no additional documents will be sought to be tendered in the course of the hearing. If any party indicates an intention to tender additional documents, steps have to be taken to ensure that the document can be placed before the court during the hearing.

If hearings can take place remotely by video conferencing or teleconferencing, what tools are you using to conduct the hearing? How is data protection and data security factored in?

At this moment, Zoom is the platform of choice, which has encryption protocols in-built.

As with all court proceedings, there is digital recording. The Supreme Court Digital Transcription System (DTS) is a system to facilitate the digital audio recording of court hearings and the preparation of transcripts.

DTS is available for all criminal trials and trials in civil actions commenced by writ. DTS is also available upon application for certain hearings such as originating summonses, company winding up, bankruptcy matters and other non-trial matters in open court, as well as appeals to a judge in chambers, and special date and assessment of damages (AD) hearings before registrars. The use of DTS in chambers hearings is subject to the approval of the judge or the registrar.

For civil matters where DTS is used, the audio recording is, pursuant to O. 38A, r. 1 of the Rules of Court, the official record of hearing. Epiq Singapore Pte. Ltd. is the service provider for the DTS audio recording and transcription services of the Supreme Court. Subject to court’s approval and upon payment of the requisite fee, parties may obtain a copy of the audio recording or transcript of court proceedings.

With effect from 15 October 2019, parties may apply for the audio recordings of High Court trials. The release of recordings (in the form of a DVD-ROM) will be subject to:

  • approval by the judge;
  • the giving of the prescribed undertakings as to the use of the audio recordings; and
  • payment of the appropriate fees and charges by the requesting party to the service provider.

If hearings can take place remotely by videoconferencing or teleconferencing, how do you organise and manage the hearing to ensure that the parties’ procedural rights are respected?

The rules and procedures applicable to physical hearings continue to apply to hearings conducted remotely by videoconferencing or teleconferencing.

In addition, we ensure that the following protocol is followed:

  • availability of technical support (both prior to and during the remote hearing);
  • minimum internet bandwidth and speed requirements, video and audio quality;
  • list of approved participants – any person not included in the list of approved participants will not be granted access to the remote hearing, unless the court grants leave;
  • witness testimony – requirements of witnesses to ensure integrity and address concerns such as ‘witness coaching’ through concealed channels of communication (eg, via an off-screen mobile phone or computer) or the presence of unauthorised persons (eg, the witness’ family member) in the same room during their testimony.

The following standard allocution is administered at the start of each hearing conducted by Zoom:

‘The Court would like to remind everyone that today’s hearing is subject to the directions previously conveyed to parties in the registry notice. The Court directs that there is to be no photography or recording in any form and, in any event, no dissemination of any photographs or recording of these proceedings as might have been made whether intentionally or otherwise. Any such photographs or recording should be surrendered to the Court immediately upon discovery. Only those counsel or persons notified to the Court should be present at each location. Everyone should treat these proceedings as they would a physical hearing in Chambers, save they need not rise and bow or stand when addressing the Court.’

In addition, the court has also published amendments in July 2020 to the Supreme Court Practice Directions and the SICC Practice Directions on court dress for open court proceedings and the giving of evidence by a person outside Singapore through live video or live television link in civil proceedings.

If hearings can take place remotely by video conferencing or teleconferencing, is access from the public and/or the press guaranteed and if so how?

Members of the public and/or the press can attend open court hearings. Hearings conducted using Zoom will be streamed on TV screens in the courtrooms.

The seating capacity of the public gallery of each courtroom is subject to safe distancing measures and a maximum limit of 50 people including judges, court officers, counsel and clients. Admission into courtrooms is on a first come, first served basis.

There is no need to register to attend a court hearing. However, all visitors will be subject to temperature screenings and be required to make health/isolation order declarations before they enter the court premises. Visitors will not be permitted to enter if they are unwell or if they have had contact with any confirmed/suspected cases within the last 14 days. In addition, all visitors must ‘check in’ using the SafeEntry digital application when entering the court building and ‘check out’ on the same application when exiting.

All hearings conducted using video conferencing proceed as if the parties are appearing before the court in person. All court rules of dress and etiquette will continue to apply. However, it will not be necessary to stand and/or bow to the court at the start or end of the hearing.

What can be done to ensure that remote justice keeps a ‘human face’ and does not become purely virtual?

As in any in-person hearing, setting a schedule and sequence of speaking in advance would increase the efficiency of the remote hearing, and avoid unscheduled interruptions to the proceedings.

As it is typically more tiring to conduct a hearing over video conference than in person, more breaks could be allowed in order to maintain the quality of the process, especially considering that participants’ attention spans may be shorter in a remote hearing compared to a physical hearing.

When fixing hearings, the court takes into consideration any time zone difference if parties or witnesses are attending the hearing from overseas.

Please share your dos and don’ts when litigating in a digital hearing.

Do ensure the court, parties, witnesses and experts have access to the necessary hardware to participate in a remote hearing. Consider what the minimum hardware or equipment requirements (both in terms of quality and quantity) are to enable access and use of the selected platform. Additional considerations include:

  • Number of computer screens needed per participant: key participants (eg, lead counsel, witness, the court) will need to simultaneously view the remote hearing and refer to electronic documents and/or transcripts, and will require reasonably sized computer screen(s); and
  • additional lighting may be necessary at each participant location to allow clear and unobstructed video quality.

Do ensure that if a witness is giving evidence from a different jurisdiction, there would be no issues of sovereignty. Certain states may regard the taking of evidence of a witness within the state by live video link or live television link as an infringement of the state’s sovereignty.

Do have a ‘host’ for the remote hearing. The ‘host’ of the remote hearing will be the individual controlling entry into the remote hearing.

From the court’s perspective, it is important that parties can be clearly seen and heard when using a video or television link for hearings. In that regard, the court has published a ‘Guide on the use of Video Conferencing and Telephone Conferencing’[7], which is available on the Supreme Court website. The guide sets out various guidelines including instructions on how to use Zoom (and the recommended system requirements), conduct and etiquette during video conference and telephone conference hearings and display naming conventions to be used for identification.

Other bodies such as the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) have also sought to assist court users and practitioners by publishing notes to provide pointers and resources on having virtual hearings and meetings. SAL’s note on ‘Virtual Hearings without Tears’ is also available on the Supreme Court website and provides recommendations on inter alia physical and technical set-up, accessories and connectivity.

 


[1]Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, ‘The Singapore Judiciary’s response to Covid-19’, (Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore,26 March 2020) available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/message-from-cj-on-covid-197292f832fc614700a0e435c6c75292a4.pdf.

[2], ‘Registrar’s Circular No. 3 of 2020, Information on measures and other matters relating to Covid-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) for court users and visitors to the Supreme Court’ (Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore, 27 March 2020) available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/module-document/registrarcircular/rc-3-2020---information-on-measures-and-other-matters-relating-to-covid-19-for-court-users-and-visitors-to-the-supreme-court.pdf.

[3]‘Guide on the use of video conferencing and telephone conferencing & video conferencing for hearing before the duty registrar’, (Supreme Court of Singapore, 6 August 2020) available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/module-document/2020-08-06---guide-to-video-conferencing.pdf.

[4]‘Registrar’s Circular No. 4 of 2020, Updates on measures relating to Covid-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) from 7 April 2020 to 4 May 2020’ (Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore, 5 April 2020) available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/module-document/registrarcircular/rc-4-2020---updates-on-measures-relating-to-covid-19-(coronavirus-disease-2019)-from-7-april-to-4-may-2020.pdf.

[5]Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, ‘The Judiciary’s response to the exit of the ‘Circuit Breaker’ period’, (Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore, 24 April 2020), available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/module-document/message-from-chief-justice---the-judiciary's-response-to-extension-of-circuit-breaker-period.pdf.

[6]Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, ‘The Judiciary’s response to the exit of the ‘Circuit Breaker’ period’, (Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore, 29 May 2020) available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/chief-justice-message--judiciary's-response-to-exit-of-the-circuit-breaker-period.pdf.

[7]‘Guide on the use of video conferencing and telephone conferencing & video conferencing for hearings before the Duty Registrar’, (Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore, 27 March 2020) available at www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/2020-03-27---guide-to-telephone-conferencing-and-video-conferencing11082d0c2d8042478a9434c23af6fdac.pdf.

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