If you have a legal claim against another person in Singapore, you may commence civil proceedings against him/her. Civil proceedings refer to legal proceedings that occur between two or more private parties and do not involve the State. This process is undertaken in a civil court in Singapore.
We set out an overview of each step in the process of a civil proceeding in Singapore.
Letter of Demand
Prior to the commencement of a legal action, you (as the plaintiff or claimant) will typically serve a Letter of Demand to the defendant. This is usually done with the assistance of a lawyer, although you may also write this letter yourself.
This Letter of Demand sets out all your demands (and the merits thereof) with the threat of legal action if the recipient of the letter does not comply with your demands. It gives the opposing party a final opportunity to comply with the demands or negotiate a settlement before legal proceedings are initiated against him or her.
During the lawsuit, the Letter of Demand can also serve as proof of your previous attempts to recover monies or settle claims with the defendant.
If the defendant does not satisfy the claims, your lawyer may advise you to proceed with civil proceedings.
Writ of Summons
Where the civil action concerns substantial disputes of fact, you must commence civil proceedings via the filing of a Writ of Summons in the Singapore courts.
If your claim does not exceed S$60,000, you or your lawyers will file the Writ of Summons with the Magistrate’s Court.
If your claim is more than S$60,000 but does not exceed S$250,000, the Writ of Summons may be filed with the District Court. The District Court is also able to hear road traffic claims or personal injury claims resulting from industrial accidents where the amount claimed does not exceed S$500,000.
Claims with quantums exceeding the sum of S$250,000 will fall within the jurisdiction of the High Court unless both you (as the plaintiff).
Service of Writ
A lawyer, lawyer’s clerk or a process server will personally serve the writ to the defendant. You will need to apply to the Court if you wish to serve the writ via the court’s process server.
If you have made 2 reasonable attempts at personally serving the writ but are unable to locate or effect personal service on the defendant, you may apply to the Court for an order for substituted service. If the Court determines that personal service is impractical, it may direct you to effect substituted service of the writ via electronic means such as e-mail or Internet transmission.
You must serve the writ on the defendant within 6 months of the date of issuance of the writ, unless the writ is to be served outside Singapore, in which case the writ will be valid for 12 months from the date of its issuance.
Statement of Claim
The Writ of Summons and Statement of Claim are usually filed together, with the Statement of Claim appended to the Writ of Summons.
The Statement of Claim typically sets out the following information:
- the identity of all plaintiff(s) and defendant(s);
- the relationship between all plaintiff(s) and defendant(s);
- the obligations which the plaintiff(s) claim have been breached by the defendant(s) (if any);
- the material facts surrounding the breach or wrongdoing;
- the losses suffered by the plaintiff(s) due to this breach or wrongdoing; and
- the relief claimed by the plaintiff(s) from the defendant(s).
Memorandum Of Appearance
The Memorandum Of Appearance is a document that the defendant is required to file once he or she has received the Writ of Summons and wishes to defend himself or herself.
The defendant usually engages a litigation law firm to file the Memorandum of Appearance. This must be filed with the court within 8 days of receiving the Writ of Summons.
If the Memorandum Of Appearance is not filed or served on you, you will be able to apply for judgement in default against the defendant without trial. The court will then assess the amount of damages that the defendant must pay to you in the event your claim is not for a fixed or liquidated sum.
Defence And/or Counterclaim
If the defendant decides to contest the claim, he or she must serve a Defence pleading within 14 days after the time limit for entering an appearance or service of the Statement of Claim, whichever is later.
The Defence sets out the reasons why the defendant should not be made liable for your claims.
The defendant can also file a Counterclaim if he or she alleges that he or she has a claim against you or is entitled to any relief or remedy against you. This is filed concurrently with the Defence.
If the defendant fails to serve a Defence even after entering an appearance, you may apply to the court for judgement in default.
The defendant may apply to the court to set aside the judgement in default if it can provide satisfactory reasons why they did not enter an appearance or serve a Defence.
Reply To Defence And/or Counterclaim
Singapore civil procedure provides that you, as the plaintiff, will have the opportunity to serve a reply and defence to the defendant’s Defence and Counterclaim(s) respectively. You must serve such reply and/or defence to the Counterclaim do so within 14 days after these documents have been served.
Pleadings are typically deemed to be closed 14 days after the service of your defence to the defendant’s Counterclaim and/or reply to the defendant’s Defence.
Discovery refers to the procedure whereby parties are required to disclose all documents to the other side which are relevant and in each party’s power, possession or custody. The court may at any time order discovery of documents via the filing and exchange of a List of Documents by each party.
A Pre-Trial Conference (“PTC”) is a conference where the court may make orders or give directions for the just, expeditious and economic disposal of the cause or matter. The first PTC is typically scheduled within 8 weeks from the date on which the writ was served, or the date on which the Memorandum of Appearance is filed.
The Registrar or Judge conducting the PTC will typically ask for updates on the status of the action, and give directions for parties to progress the action (such as directions relating to the filing of interlocutory applications). If a settlement is reached between the parties, such settlement may be recorded before the Registrar or Judge conducting the PTC.
If it is determined that the case cannot be resolved without a trial, the Registrar or Judge conducting the PTC may set a date for trial.
Common Causes of Action
The following sections set out some common causes of action for commencing a civil lawsuit in Singapore.
If there is a breach of a valid and legally binding contract between yourself and another party, you may make a claim based in contract against such party in breach. Examples of breaches include the refusal or failure to fulfil a contractual obligation, late performance of a contractual obligation or the performing of an act which the party in breach undertook not to perform.
You may sue for monetary compensation in the form of contractual damages and/or seek termination of the contract. In certain cases, the court may grant an order of specific performance, which compels the party in breach to fulfil his or her obligation, or a prohibitory injunction to prevent a party from doing something he or she has agreed not to do.
A tort is a wrongful act that causes loss or injury to someone else outside of a contractual relationship between the parties. The person who committed the tort may be held liable for the losses or injuries caused.
For instance, if a newspaper published false claims about you that caused damage to your reputation, you may bring a claim based on the tort of defamation.
If a tort has been committed against you, you may bring a claim for compensatory damages for the losses or injuries suffered by you.
Breach Of Fiduciary Duties
A fiduciary is someone who is in a position or relationship of trust with a principal. Fiduciaries have a legal duty to, amongst other duties, act in the best interests of the principal.
For example, Trustees are fiduciaries as they hold property on behalf of beneficiaries. Directors also owe fiduciary duties to their companies whilst exercising their powers as a director.
When a fiduciary duty is breached, a principal to whom a fiduciary duty is owed may file a civil case in Singapore to sue the fiduciary for monetary compensation, the return of property held by the fiduciary and/or an injunction to restrain the fiduciary from further breaches of his fiduciary duties.
Things To Consider Before You Sue
Civil litigation in Singapore can be a very long and costly process. You may want to consider the following matters carefully before making a decision to commence legal proceedings.
Whether relief can be sought in Singapore courts
Some contracts may set out specific clauses that require disputes to be resolved in the courts of another country. If you have agreed to such a clause, you may not be able to adjudicate your claim in the Singapore courts.
Parties may also agree in a contract to resolve their disputes via an arbitration process instead of civil litigation. In such cases, the Singapore courts are likely to stay or postpone any proceedings commenced by you until you have completed the arbitration process as stipulated in the contract.
You should scrutinise your contract carefully and engage the assistance of a lawyer if required to determine if your claim can be brought in the Singapore courts.
Validity of the Claim
You should seek advice from your lawyer to ascertain your chances of success of winning your case and obtaining the relief you seek.
If the evidence is not strong enough to support your case, it may be more appropriate to negotiate a settlement or drop the lawsuit instead of expending time, effort and resources in lengthy and costly civil litigation processes.
Risk Of Counterclaim
In civil litigation, all documents relevant to the case must be exchanged between the parties in a process called discovery. This also means that the opposing party may use the documents provided by you to bring or support a counterclaim against you.
If there is a risk of the opposing party having a valid counterclaim against you, you may wish to avoid commencing legal proceedings altogether.
Costs of Litigation
Even where the evidence currently available to you strongly supports your claim, there may still be a probability that the courts will rule against you in light of new evidence adduced by the opposing party. The courts may also order costs against you in certain circumstances. If you are in a position where you may not be able to afford the legal fees associated with litigation, you may wish to consider alternative methods of resolving the dispute.
You may also wish to reconsider pursuing a claim in civil litigation if your matter involves complex issues and may result in lengthy and prolonged civil proceedings. If your opponent is a wealthy company or individual, they may also be better prepared for the costs associated with a prolonged trial or civil proceeding.
The Quantum of Relief sought
Even if the courts award judgment in your favour, you may still be required to pay various legal fees. Your civil litigation lawyer can help you estimate the full legal fees associated with your matter. You may also wish to bear in mind that you may have to expend a considerable amount of time and effort in the civil litigation process.
You may also wish to consider the resources at the disposal of the opponent or defendant that you wish to sue. If he or she possesses limited resources or is at risk of becoming bankrupt or insolvent, you may not be able to obtain the relief you seek even if judgment is awarded in your favour.
Ability To Enforce Judgement In Singapore
A relevant factor to consider is whether the person you wish to sue is residing in Singapore and whether he or she has assets located in Singapore or in another jurisdiction.
If the defendant is residing overseas, it may take some time and effort to locate him or her and effect personal service of the necessary legal documents on him or her. You may need to engage a process server from the court of the country where he or she currently resides.
If the defendant’s assets are primarily located overseas, any judgment you obtain in the Singapore courts will not compel the defendant to sell his foreign assets to pay you. You may be required to enforce the Singapore court judgment in the foreign jurisdiction where the assets are located. The foreign court may not recognise your Singapore court judgment and may require another hearing in that foreign court for your case.
Your lawyer will be able to advise you on whether you should bring your claim in Singapore or in another jurisdiction, but you are likely to require the advice of a foreign lawyer if you are intending to sue in a foreign jurisdiction.
Mediation is an alternative method of dispute resolution whereby a neutral mediator is appointed to facilitate negotiations between the parties. The aim of mediation is to help both parties reach an amicable settlement without the need to expend time and resources in civil litigation. Mediation can therefore be a quick and inexpensive way to resolve civil disputes. You may be able reach an agreement with the opposing party to settle for a sufficient amount of damages without having to resort to civil litigation.
The Limitation Act is the main statute laying out the statutory limitation periods during which you must commence your legal action. These limitation periods vary depending on the type of legal action you wish to commence.
The following sections set out the limitation periods for a few types of claims. You should consult a lawyer to ascertain if your action is time-barred before proceeding to take any step in civil proceedings.
Contractual Actions: 6 Years
You will not be able to bring a contractual claim 6 years after the date on which your right to bring such claim first arose. For example, if you rendered a service to someone who failed to pay for it more than 6 years ago, you are time-barred from bringing the claim against him.
However, where your claim involves fraud, the limitation period does not start until the date on which you discovered the fraud or could have discovered the fraud if you had undertaken reasonable due diligence.
Tortious Actions: 6 Years
The Limitations Act states that the time limit to commence actions founded on a tort is 6 years after the date of the tortious act. Different time limits may apply for cases involving negligence, nuisance or breach of duty.
If there is fraud involved, the limitation period does not start until the date on which you have discovered the fraud or could have discovered the fraud with reasonable due diligence.
Personal Injury Actions: 3 Years
If you were a victim of a car accident and wish to claim damages for the personal injuries caused to you, the limitation period for commencing legal action is either 3 years from the date of the action (i.e. the accident) or from the date you had the knowledge required to commence legal actions regarding a specific injury, whichever is later.
There is an overriding limit of 15 years for any actions for damages for nuisance, negligence or breach of duty, meaning that you must take legal action within 15 years after the date of the accident or incident causing the personal injury.
Wrongful Act, Default or Neglect Causing Death: 3 Years
The Civil Law Act provides that a claim concerning death caused by any wrongful act, neglect or default must be brought within 3 years of the deceased person’s death.
How Much Does It Cost To Sue Someone In Singapore
Legal costs may vary based on a variety of factors, some of which are set out in the following sections. You may wish to approach law firms that specialize in civil litigation for a fee quote for your matter.
Most lawyers charge fees based on an hourly rate. Some lawyers may agree to have a fee cap or provide a rough estimate of the fees for your case. There are also law firms that require fees to be paid on completion of various milestones in the transaction or proceeding.
It is rare for lawyers to charge fixed fees as the legal process can be somewhat unpredictable.
You may wish to note that your lawyer is not permitted to charge legal fees that are derived from a percentage of the amount awarded to you by the court.
Reputation Of The Lawyer
Lawyers with many years of experience and a strong reputation in their respective practices may demand higher fees for their services.
If your matter involves a niche area of the law, you may require a lawyer specialising in such area of the law who may charge a higher fee for his or her services.
Quantum of Claim
If your legal claim exceeds $250,000 (or $500,000 for personal injury claims), your claim is likely to be heard in the High Court. It is generally more expensive to hire a lawyer who is experienced in handling High Court cases.
In general, there will be more risk associated with larger quantums of claims. Your lawyer may anticipate that more work will be required to build a stronger case and may thus charge a higher fee for his or her services.
Complexity Of The Case
If your case involves complex issues and voluminous documents which will require a considerable amount of time to process and organise, you may expect to be charged with higher fees.
For instance, a commercial dispute between two large companies involving a significant amount of documents will generally result in a higher fee quote, while a simpler matter of debt recovery between you and another individual may result in less legal fees chargeable.
Why Can’t I Just Find A Quote Online For Legal Fees?
Most law firms are unable to provide quotes online because the amount of time and effort needed for each case can vary widely. Lawyers will usually require more information about the facts of your case and the documents you have to support it in order to estimate the time needed and costs involved.
You may wish to send a short brief of your matter to law firms via email to ask for an estimated fee quote.
Commencing and undertaking civil proceedings in Singapore can be a long-drawn and costly exercise. You may wish to consider alternative methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation, and only commence civil proceedings as a last resort.
A competent and experienced civil litigation lawyer in Singapore will be able to advise you on every step of the legal process and, should you decide to commence legal proceedings, build a strong case to increase your chances of winning your lawsuit in court.