A JOURNEY towards cheaper, quicker and less bitterly contested justice, that began two decades back, reached a "historically significant moment" yesterday when Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon launched the State Courts Centre for Dispute Resolution.
Instead of letting the opposing parties and their lawyers attack each other, the centre will seek to settle disputes across a wide spectrum of matters in a consensual way, through mediation and neutral evaluation.
It will sit at the entrance level of the State Courts, sending the signal that this approach is the "first stop" to be seriously considered in any type of conflict, said Chief Justice Menon.
Singapore's justice system and its users have been increasingly convinced about the merits of resolving differences through joint problem solving. But before the centre was launched, these mediation exercises were scattered across a range of judicial entities.
Civil claims were referred to the Primary Dispute Resolution Centre. Magistrate's complaints went to the Crime Registry while the pre-trial resolution of certain criminal cases was done elsewhere.
From now, all these will go to the new centre along with applications under the Protection from Harassment Act.
"Many disputes... might even cut across the civil, criminal divide," said CJ Menon, explaining the rationale for bringing them under the new centre.
For example, the same incident could see a magistrate's complaint filed for assault and a civil action for monetary compensation. The centre is equipped to deal with both.
What the disputing parties, on their part, will save will be time, money and possibly their relationships.
The Chief Justice pointed to the latest surveys of those involved in the mediation of claims here.
Some 95 per cent of the parties agreed that mediation had helped them save on legal costs, 100 per cent agreed that it had cut the time they would have spent in court and 81 per cent said it had helped their relationship with the other party.
This approach had made justice more accessible to the layman, said CJ Menon. People had come to accept that justice could be found through mediation. "In short, justice can frequently be found outside the confines of a courtroom," he said.
The new centre would push new initiatives along. For example, the Skype facility would be institutionalised to allow parties based overseas to take part in the mediation process over Skype.
And while the State Courts have been providing services like mediation free since the 1990s, CJ Menon announced that the new centre would charge fees for higher-value civil claims in the District Court from May, pending an amendment to the Rules of Court.
Such claims are generally between $60,000 and $250,000 in value.
All magistrate's court claims, motor accident claims, personal injury claims and magistrate's complaints will remain free.
This article was first published on March 5, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.