Friday, 14 July 2023
The Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon
Supreme Court of Singapore
The President of the Republic of Singapore, Your Excellency Madam Halimah Yacob
The Honourable 2nd Minister for Law, Mr Edwin Tong
Ladies and gentlemen
1. A very good morning. I would like to add my thanks to those of Justice Hoong to all of you for joining us today, and in particular to Your Excellency President Halimah both for gracing this occasion and for your strong support for the work of the judiciary over the years.
2. Every year, more than 80% of the cases filed in the Singapore courts are dealt with here at the State Courts,(1) including small claims, employment claims, community disputes, and the vast majority of criminal cases. The State Courts are therefore in many ways the primary point of contact between our people and our justice system. For that reason, the State Courts serve as the focal point of our efforts to improve the delivery of justice and to ensure its accessibility to the average person in Singapore.
3. The opening of the State Courts Towers in December 2019 marked a significant milestone in those efforts. Because we were able to start with a blank slate, we were able to design a courthouse that truly met the needs of court users while incorporating the best that modern technology could offer. But the design, building and operationalisation of the State Courts Towers also coincided with a watershed in the way we approached the delivery of justice. To place the State Courts Towers within the context of these broader changes, we can think of a paradigm shift in four phases: first, improving the experience of seeking justice within the courtroom; second, promoting access to justice beyond the court hearing; third, the need to deliver justice beyond the court building; and finally, the growing need to reimagine the courts of the future.
4. Starting with the first point, the State Courts Towers significantly improve the essential experience of attending a hearing in court. In the courtrooms and throughout the building, there are features that help users with visual, auditory or mobility impairments. Facilities such as the cafeteria, nursing rooms, and the roof garden are open to the public. Even the corridors outside courtrooms feature greenery and open views. These features are all designed to help our users feel as comfortable and as natural as possible in what can otherwise be a somewhat stressful environment.
5. However, we have also come to recognise that the process of securing justice is not confined to the courtroom. It begins outside the courtroom and extends beyond it. In a civil case, for instance, a person faced with a dispute must first appreciate that hers is a legal problem capable of a legal solution. Then, after she decides to pursue the resolution of that dispute in court, she must initiate the proceedings and get her case ready for hearing. Each of these steps can be challenging and foreign to those without legal representation. The State Courts Towers are designed to more effectively connect court users with the available sources of assistance. Thus, on level B1, there is a HELP Centre which hosts the Community Justice Centre, the Public Defender’s Office and Pro Bono SG. These services share a single front desk, which guides court users towards legal and other aid in both civil and criminal matters. Assistance may also be needed after the case has been heard. This can be especially true in criminal cases involving young or vulnerable offenders, where the offending behaviour may be rooted in social, psychological, or other factors. It is therefore apt that the Centre for Specialist Services, which offers a suite of counselling and social services for such court users, is housed within this building, next to the Community Courts on level 18.
6. The opening of the State Courts Towers also coincided with a dramatic recalibration in the way we conceptualise how justice is to be delivered. The main catalyst for this was the COVID pandemic, which made it essential for courts around the world to delink the idea of access to justice from physical access to the courts. But the underlying point goes much further than the exigencies of the pandemic: instead, it is just part of a responsible reaction to the needs of modern society. As the pace of life quickens and technology continues its advance into every aspect of our lives, many will rightly ask why there is a need to set aside half a day to travel to the courthouse to deal with a procedural issue or to make oral submissions to the court. We have therefore sought to divide our processes and hearings between those that should take place in person, and those that can be effectively conducted remotely, and the latter will continue to take place virtually in the post-pandemic new normal.
7. Finally, the fourth and biggest challenge, but also the one which can reap the greatest benefits, is the need to reimagine the courts of the future. This goes beyond improving and revamping existing processes, and involves rethinking the best way for us to deliver justice. An early example of this that many of us are familiar with is the recent innovation of asynchronous hearings. These are proceedings that are conducted through an exchange of electronic messages between the parties and the court. They combine much of the interactivity of an oral hearing with the time and cost savings of a paper hearing. And for almost everyone, this is an extremely intuitive modality for communication, since we have grown used to communicating by email and instant messaging. The State Courts paved the way for asynchronous hearings through pilot programmes that were carried out in 2020,(2) and their success has led us to adopt the option of conducting asynchronous hearings in various areas across the court system.(3)
8. We must persevere in our efforts to reimagine the delivery of justice. A good example is our ongoing efforts to develop outcome simulators for disputes with commonly recurring fact patterns. For a start, the State Courts and the Singapore Academy of Law launched the Motor Accident Claims Online (or “MACO”), an online service that allows users to obtain a free and instant estimate of the likely allocation of liability and amount of damages for personal injuries suffered in motor accidents. Outcome simulators like MACO can help settle disputes before they come to the court at all, and we hope to significantly expand the scope for these and other digital tools to meet the legal needs of our people.
9. Such measures will be necessary in an operating environment marked by the simple reality that disputes will increase as our population grows along with the level of commerce, and the sophistication of our citizenry. For any physical court premises to remain fit for purpose in such an operating environment, we will need to find more effective ways to deliver justice beyond the courthouse and to reimagine the ways in which justice can be delivered. If we succeed in doing so, the courtrooms and facilities that we have in the State Courts Towers can then be dedicated to those proceedings that will truly benefit from physical attendance in court.
10. The State Courts play a vital role in our broader vision to develop a future-ready court system for Singapore and the Towers which now house it are designed with this goal in mind. The official opening today marks a new chapter in the history of the State Courts and its efforts to secure access to justice in Singapore. Please join me in congratulating the entire team of dedicated judicial officers and court administrators at the State Courts led by Justice Hoong, and all of the many colleagues and officers who have worked together over the years to bring this magnificent building to fruition. And once again, let me express my heartfelt appreciation to Her Excellency the President for gracing this very important occasion.
11. Thank you very much.
(1) In 2021, 190,966 of the 231,552 cases filed in the Singapore courts (comprising the Supreme Court, State Courts and Family Justice Courts) were filed in the State Courts.
(2) See State Courts Registrar’s Circulars No. 2, 3, 11, 12 and 13 of 2020.
(3) The amendments to legislation that enabled asynchronous hearings can be found in the Courts (Civil and Criminal) Justice Reform Act 2021 at ss 13, 25, 27, 46, 55, 59, 62 and 64. The powers apply to hearings other than those involving the taking of oral evidence.