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Singapore is the second least risky country in Asia in 2010, according to the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). Singapore’s legal system has been a crucial enabler of the country’s phenomenal progress in recent years. It is efficient, transparent, and exceptionally sound. While most people consider Singapore to be a rule-bound country, referring to it as a “fine city” (with heavy fines for littering, chewing gum, smoking in public, jaywalking, and failing to flush toilets after use, among other things), it is also widely regarded as a very safe place to live and do business. Singapore has one of the world’s lowest crime rates.

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What is Singapore’s law?

As a former British colony, Singapore’s legal system is based on English common law. In the eyes of the law, all Singaporeans are equal, regardless of race, religion, or faith. Singapore’s legal system is built on four pillars: the Constitution, Legislation, Subsidiary legislation, and judicial decisions. These are as follows:

1. The individual’s fundamental rights are enshrined in the Constitution. It also includes the fundamental principles and basic framework for the three organs of state: the Executive (the President, Prime Minister, and other ministers responsible for government affairs and accountable to Parliament), the Legislature (the President and Parliament with legislative authority responsible for enacting legislation), and the Judiciary (the various courts of law which operate independent of the Executive and Legislature).

2. Legislation, also known as statutory laws, are written laws passed by the Singapore Parliament or other authorities with the authority to do so in the past in Singapore.

3. Subsidiary legislation, also known as subordinate legislation, is written legislation enacted by ministers, government agencies, or statutory boards. Subsidiary legislation is enacted in accordance with the parent statute.

4. Judge-made law refers to court decisions that are regarded as a source of law. Property law, contract law, and trust law, for example, are primarily judge-made.

Understanding the legal system?

The Judiciary is led by the Chief Justice, who is nominated by the President. The Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts comprise the Judiciary. The Supreme Court, which is divided into the Court of Appeal and the High Court, hears both civil and criminal cases. District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts, Coroners’ Courts, and Small Claims Tribunals are among the Subordinate Courts. The Subordinate Courts are overseen by a Senior District Judge. When you are suing someone or are being sued, it is critical that you know which Court to approach.

The Court of Appeal, as the name implies, hears appeals from High Court decisions in both civil and criminal cases. The Court of Appeal is composed of the Chief Justice and the Judges of Appeal. The Court of Appeal is typically composed of three judges (the Chief Justice and two Judges of Appeal). On rare situations, there may be less or more than three judges.

The High Court is made up of the Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court (which may add a Judge of Appeal or subject matter specialists to help in particular matters). Typically, all proceedings are heard in front of a single judge.

The High Court considers both criminal and civil cases, as well as appeals from District Court and Magistrates’ Court verdicts. It also hears issues involving admiralty, corporate winding-up, bankruptcy, and petitions for advocacy and legal admission. The High Court has broad supervisory and revisionary jurisdiction over all lower courts in any civil or criminal action. In general, the High Court hears cases if the subject matter of the claim is worth more than 250,000 SGD. It has the authority to try all offenses committed in Singapore and, in some situations, offenses committed outside of Singapore. The High Court hears criminal matters involving the death sentence or more than ten years in jail.

District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, Juvenile Courts, Coroners’ Courts, and Small Claims Tribunals are all part of the Subordinate Courts. The Senior District Judge is in charge of the administration of the Subordinate Courts. Other courts, such as the Family Court, Night Court, Community Court, Syariah Court, and Traffic Court, have been added to the Subordinate Courts in recent years.

The District Court hears civil disputes involving claims of more than 60,000 SGD but less than 250,000 SGD. This court can also hear cases if the maximum prison term is 10 years or less, or where the punishment is merely a fine. It has the authority to condemn a person to:

➤ A maximum prison sentence of 7 years;
➤ A maximum fine of up to 10,000 SGD;
➤ Up to 12 strokes of caning;
➤ Reformative training; or
➤ A combination of the above.

The Magistrate Court hears civil proceedings involving claims of up to 60,000 SGD. This court also hears offenses with a potential sentence of three years in jail or less, as well as offenses punishable merely by a fine. It has the authority to condemn a person to a maximum of two years in prison, impose a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD, or administer a maximum of six cane strokes.

The Juvenile Court is especially concerned with offenses purportedly committed by “children” (those under the age of 14) or “young persons” (14 to 16 years of age). It addresses Beyond Parental Control (BPC), Juvenile Arrest (JAC), and Care and Protection Order (CPO) cases (CPO).

This court conducts investigations into any death that occurs:

➤ In an unexpected or unnatural manner;
➤ Through violence; or
➤ Up to 12 strokes of caning;
➤ Reformative training; or
➤ Where the method of death is unknown.

Suspected suicides, traffic and industrial accidents, and death in a prison are all examples. The Coroner is a Subordinate Court Judge who will undertake investigations with the assistance of the police.

The Small Disputes Tribunal handles small claims between consumers and suppliers, contracts deriving from the sale of products or provision of services, and residential leases of less than two years. The Tribunal has the authority to hear claims up to $10,000 SGD, which can be increased to 20,000 SGD in specific circumstances. All claims must be filed within a year of the occurrence of the dispute, and parties are usually not required to be represented by a lawyer. The Tribunal is presided over by Referees nominated by the President based on the Chief Justice’s proposal.

Adoptions, divorce, children’s issues, division of marriage property, personal protection orders, resolution and joint conferences (mediation), spousal and child support, family violence, and the enforcement of Syariah Court orders are all handled by the Family Court.

To deal with the huge amount of regulatory matters, two night courts operate Monday through Friday after 6 p.m. for the benefit of the working people. The first Night Court hears summonses and notices issued by several authorities, including the Housing and Development Board, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Central Provident Fund Board, and the Registry of Companies and Businesses. The second Night Court hears traffic violations brought by the Traffic Police as well as regulation violations brought by the Land Transport Authority.

The community Court hears cases involving young offenders (aged 16 to 18), offenders with mental disabilities, neighborhood disputes, attempted suicide cases, family violence cases, carnal connection offenses committed by young offenders, animal abuse and cruelty, cases involving offenders aged 65 and up, and selected cases involving offenders aged 65 and up.

The Syariah Court oversees and resolves marriage and divorce disputes between parties who are Muslims or who have married in accordance with Muslim Law.

The Traffic Court hears and adjudicates traffic offenses reported by the Traffic Police and the Land Transport Authority.

What are the types of law and courts?

1. Common Law

The British-inherited Common Law is an essential part of Singapore’s legal framework. Singapore’s common law is distinguished by the use of judicial precedent.

In other words, the law is produced by the decisions of the courts. In this regard, judges are merely bound to follow the ratio decidendi (or operative reason for the decision) of the higher court within the same hierarchy. Thus, in Singapore, the ratio decidendi contained in Singapore Court of Appeal decisions is strictly binding on the Singapore High Court, District Court, and Magistrates’ Court.

2. Criminal Law

Singapore’s criminal law is essentially statutory in form, stemming from the comprehensive Penal Code. The Penal Code explains what defines each of the 24 infractions mentioned in its 24 chapters, as well as the minimum and maximum sentence for the same. The Penal Code was based on Indian law at first. This was changed and replaced with the Criminal Procedure Code, which is based on English criminal procedure law. The Criminal Procedure Code governs the investigation and prosecution of all criminal offenses under the Penal Code or other acts. In Singapore, criminal proceedings are heard in the High Court and Court of Appeal. In its original jurisdiction, the High Court deals with:

➤ Trial of criminal offenses
➤ Appeals from the Subordinate Courts' Decisions
➤ Revision in criminal proceedings and matters handled by the Subordinate Courts; and
➤ Points of law reserved for consideration by the High Court in extraordinary situations filed by the Subordinate Courts.

The Court of Appeal hears appeals from decisions made by the High Court in the exercise of its original criminal jurisdiction, as well as points of law reserved for its consideration in criminal cases considered by the High Court in its original, appellate, or revisionary jurisdiction.

The Criminal Mentions Court can also hear criminal matters. When the prosecution is ready to formally charge an accused person, he or she is brought before a Criminal Mentions Court. A criminal must be charged within 48 hours of being arrested and remanded. There are two Criminal Mentions Courts, one for District Arrest Cases (DACs) and one for Magistrates Arrest Cases (MACs) (MACs).

Offenses that can be tried before the High Court are classified as capital (i.e. punishable by death) or non-capital. A Judge presides over the Court. Prosecutors from the appropriate law enforcement and government agencies are also present. A charge (specifics of the offence) is levied against the person or persons who commit the offense, and they have the option of pleading guilty, claiming trial, or requesting an adjournment to another date. Pre-trial conferences are common in criminal trials. The court keeps a close eye on the status of the investigations and other actions taken in preparation for the trial. These conferences are not open to the general public. Preliminary inquiries are available to the public in order to decide if there is sufficient evidence to commit the accused to trial in High Court.

3. Civil Law

In general, the High Court hears cases if the subject matter of the claim is worth more than 250,000 SGD. The District Court hears claims where the amount in dispute is less than 250,000 SGD, and the Magistrates’ Court hears claims where the amount in dispute is less than 60,000 SGD. The Small Claims Tribunal hears claims of up to 20,000 SGD (or up to 10,000 SGD if both parties agree) over a disagreement resulting from a contract for the sale of goods or provision of services, or when there is property damage (except in the case of accidents involving a motor vehicle).

What are dispute resolution for businesses?

Before going to Court, you should keep in mind that it can be an expensive and time-consuming process. The vast majority of commercial disputes are resolved outside of the court system through Mediation and Arbitration proceedings.

The Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) is a non-profit organization that trains and chooses a panel of neutral mediators to assist parties in resolving conflicts peacefully. The mediators are recognized individuals from the legal or other professional sectors who, with the support of each party’s lawyer, assist the parties in negotiating and reaching an acceptable settlement for all. The decision is made by the parties, and the mediator just assists them; he does not make the choice for them. The SMC is said to have settled 90 percent of the disputes within one working day, saving significant money and time. The charge for mediation begins at 900 SGD per side per day. When necessary, the SMC will also perform neutral evaluation (an objective view by an industry expert when parties have reached a standstill in discussions).

The Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Relations Department facilitates amicable resolution of employer-employee issues through mediation.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) Mediation Centre assists in the resolution of conflicts between consumers and businesses.

eAlternative Dispute Resolution is a Singapore Subordinate Courts initiative that allows parties involved in an e-commerce transaction to resolve their disputes via the Internet. Disputes can arise over consumer and contractual issues, as well as intellectual property rights between businesses (B2B), customers (C2C), or both (B2C, C2B).

The Financial Industry Disputes Resolution Centre (FIDREC) is a low-cost, easily accessible, impartial, and independent dispute resolution center for consumers who have disagreements with financial institutions.

Real estate and construction disputes are mediated by the Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers (SISV). is a website that facilitates dispute resolution through online mediation, neutral evaluation, e-settlement, and the Singapore Domain Name Dispute Resolution Service (SDRP). On the website, parties can register cases and arrange for video conferencing, Internet chats, and other services.

Arbitration, unlike mediation, is legally binding. It’s comparable like going to court, except it doesn’t take place in a courtroom and isn’t open to the public. Regardless of the parties’ agreement, the arbitrator will make his or her own ruling. In Singapore, arbitration proceedings are handled by the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC). The SIAC can handle practically any civil case, but not criminal or family law cases. Arbitration judgements are enforceable in over 120 countries under the New York Convention. The arbitration charge includes an administration fee, arbitrators’ fees, and lawyers’ fees, which vary depending on the size of the dispute and the seniority of the arbitrators. The SIAC includes a roster of approximately 190 legal and industry professionals from whom to choose, or parties can select their own arbitrators.

The Singapore Chamber of Maritime Arbitration (SCMA) provides a reliable and efficient means of resolving maritime disputes through arbitration.

The Law Society Mediation/Arbitration Scheme assists parties in reaching a cost agreement through mediation first, followed by arbitration.

How to resolve disputes through court system?

Typically, commercial conflicts are heard in civil courts. Depending on the size and form of the claim, you can file a claim with the High Court, District Court, Magistrates’ Court, or Small Claims Tribunal. Other specialized courts exist, such as the Copyright Tribunal and the Labour Court.

1. The Copyright Tribunal. The Copyright Tribunal mediates disputes between copyright holders and copyright users.

2. The Labour Court. When conflicts between employers and employees cannot be resolved through mediation or reconciliation, the Labour Court steps in.

Useful Facts to Remember about Singapore’s Court Procedures

➤ The Plaintiff is the individual who files the suit. The Defendant is the person who is being served or against whom the claim is brought.
➤ A suit is filed in the proper Court depending on the nature and quantity of the claim.
➤ If the Defendant decides to settle the claim rather than contest it, he may contact the Plaintiff or the Plaintiff's lawyer to reach an out-of-court settlement.
➤ If not, the Court will schedule a hearing to hear both parties and weigh all facts and proof.
➤ At this point, an out-of-court settlement is still possible.
➤ Once a decision is made, it is legally binding.
➤ If the parties fail to comply, the Court has the authority to issue a warrant of seizure and sale. This enables the claiming party to seize and sell the assets in order to obtain his compensation.
➤ The Court's decision might be challenged by filing an appeal with the High Court.

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