Steps to curb rising legal costs

Steps to curb rising legal costs

To help people cope with rising legal costs, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon on Friday proposed a series of measures, from curbing fees to boosting free legal services, in a speech to mark the start of a new legal year.

The proposals also include reforming family justice, by getting unhappy parties to solve problems and repair relationships without having to go to court.

High on this year's to-do list is a pilot scheme, which will be implemented "soon", to change the framework of how costs are assessed in civil cases.

In selected High Court cases under the scheme, both sides will have to tell each other and the judge how much they estimate their costs to be, even before the trial begins.

These estimates will later serve as a guide when the judge decides on how to apportion costs, usually to the benefit of the winning party.

Typically, the issue of costs, which is different from damages in that it reimburses how much one side spent on legal fees, is raised only after the verdict here.

"It is hoped that we might no longer see the tendency for successful parties to inflate their cost claim even as losing parties object vehemently to sums that they themselves might not have hesitated to claim had the shoe been on the other foot," said CJ Menon.

Lawyers lauded the move, noting how this practice is already the norm elsewhere, like in Britain.

"This makes the costs transparent for the client and helps him to decide on whether it is worthwhile to mediate, settle or really pursue the case," said Mr Conrad Campos, a partner in RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

CJ Menon added that the court will also publish a guide based on how much small and medium-sized firms charge to cut down on unnecessary appeals on costs. Guidelines on how to assess liability in road accidents will also be released to help road users and insurers.

Speaking before more than 500 members of the legal fraternity and guests including Malaysian Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria, Justice Geraldine Andrews from England and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, CJ Menon stressed how these moves were geared to ensure that justice remains within the reach of all Singaporeans.

He announced that by 2015, lawyers may have to report how many hours they spend on pro bono work.

The data, which will be collected over three to five years, will help the authorities understand the issues lawyers face in delivering services for free and to see if those in need have access to legal aid.

"These moves are part of a wider effort to ensure that essential legal services are within the reach of our citizenry," said CJ Menon, calling for more lawyers to work not for reward, but for the desire to do the "right thing".

Another area to "enhance", he pointed out, is family justice.

Resolving such cases should begin with "community touch points" such as teachers and religious organisations and social welfare workers who have been trained to recognise symptoms of family distress.

They can then direct the cases to a family service centre when needed, said CJ Menon.

For cases that cannot be resolved, a separate Family Court with "simplified and streamlined court processes" will be set up.

These measures, if implemented after a public consultation exercise, "will make for a less acrimonious journey through the legal system", he said.

Mr P. Suppiah, 83, the oldest lawyer still in practice to attend Friday's event, was all for the measures that CJ Menon hopes to introduce.

He said: "There are a lot of innovative ideas, which gives more scope for justice and better access to it."

In a separate speech, Attorney-General Steven Chong announced plans to expand the role of the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to include acting for statutory boards.

AGC will start by handling judicial review cases brought against statutory boards, such as the Housing Board, and civil penalty cases enforced by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

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