Response by SPS Rahayu Mahzam at the Committee of Supply Debate 2023
27 Feb 2023 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
- Madam Chairman, I will focus on two of MinLaw’s themes:
(a) Enhancing the trust, relevance and accessibility of the legal system; and
(b) Optimising land use through greater collaboration and use of technology.
(I) Enhancing Trust, Relevance and Accessibility of our Legal System
- Our legal system is a cornerstone of society that allows us to thrive economically and maintain order and justice.
- MinLaw is therefore committed to bringing a better quality of life for our people through enhancements to the legal system.
- Today, I will elaborate on efforts to:
(a) Increase access to justice;
(b) Support individuals navigating family justice processes;
(c) Make enforcement of judgments cheaper and easier; and
(d) Utilise technology to enhance legal processes.
A. Improving access to justice and legal services for all Singaporeans, regardless of their means
- Being able to access the legal system is a pillar of the rule of law. Our efforts are channelled towards two areas.
- First, supporting vulnerable groups that require legal assistance. Besides the Community Law Centre that Minister Tong shared, there are other forms of legal aid and assistance provided by non-Government partners, some of which are available to foreigners.
- There are about 70 legal clinics run by various community, religious, and voluntary welfare organisations. For instance, the Migrant Worker Legal Clinics was launched by Pro Bono SG, in partnership with other members of the Migrant Workers’ Group.
- MinLaw is also working with Pro Bono SG and others to develop a one-stop portal to provide legal information and connect users to additional resources and assistance. It will also enable better coordination of legal clinics such that legal advice will be more accessible.
- We welcome Mr Raj Joshua Thomas’ comments and will continue to strengthen the network of support.
Update on the Public Defender’s Office
- Second, we will continually review Singaporeans’ level of access to legal help and representation in Court.
- For civil legal aid, since 1958, the Government has been delivering aid to deserving cases.
- For criminal legal aid, the broad principle, for a long time, was that the Government should not pay to defend accused persons, except in capital cases. Over the years, we have moved to fund a part of the costs. In 2015, the Government started funding the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) directly.
- Last year, the Government decided to do more – establishing the Public Defender’s Office (PDO). The PDO, set up in December 2022, increases access to justice. The coverage of criminal defence aid has been expanded to the bottom 35% of resident households, and covers offences in all but 10 Acts.
- Responding to Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin and Mr Thomas, I am glad to share that the PDO has started off smoothly. 13 public defenders have been hired. As of 31 January 2023, more than 250 applications have been received. Of about 130 applications which have completed assessment, about 60 applications have been assessed to be eligible for criminal defence aid.
- The PDO also collaborates closely with Pro Bono SG to co-deliver criminal defence aid, ensuring it is administered efficiently and that we minimise duplication. For example, all applications for criminal defence aid by Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are assessed by PDO.
- Then, there is a two-step process that determines which cases go to PDO or CLAS.
(a) Urgent cases are assigned to PDO. This ensures timely legal representation is provided.
(b) The remaining bulk of cases are shared between PDO and CLAS. The actual cases will be assigned based on the relative workload and capacity of PDO and CLAS to ensure resources of both are used efficiently.
- With the increase in coverage, we expect that volunteer lawyers will continue to play a role in ensuring justice is accessible to all segments of society. The Government’s partnership with CLAS will help to preserve the pro bono spirit of the legal fraternity, which remains a key pillar of legal aid.
- We will conduct a review of the criminal defence aid system at an appropriate juncture to determine how to leverage the strengths of CLAS and the PDO in the long term. As it has only been three months since its establishment, we will continue to monitor the caseload of the PDO closely to see that there is adequate staffing and capacity.
- To Mr Nair’s query, the criminal defence aid means test threshold is pegged at PCHI of $1,500 or the 35th percentile of households by income, while the civil defence aid means test is pegged at PCHI of $950 or the 25th percentile of households by income.
(a) We had increased the criminal defence aid income threshold as a study conducted by MinLaw showed that households around the 35th percentile will find it challenging to afford legal representation before the Courts, even for plead guilty cases.
(b) On the civil legal aid means test criteria, we had recently revised the criteria in end-2019. We will review the civil legal aid means test criteria in due course.
- I turn to family justice – an area that has a deep impact on the lives of individuals.
- The Divorce Assets Informative Division Estimator (Divorce AIDE) was launched in September 2022. It is an online tool aimed at improving access to legal services. Divorce AIDE educates users on:
(a) How matrimonial assets are generally divided upon divorce; and
(b) The estimated share and amount they are likely to receive from the matrimonial assets.
- Its algorithm provides an indication of a reasonable range that parties can receive from the pool of matrimonial assets post-divorce. Parties can use this to consider whether to settle the division of matrimonial assets amicably.
- On Mr Murali Pillai’s query as to whether the needs of the children are taken into account by the algorithm, this will have to be separately considered when negotiating a settlement. Children’s needs are particular to each family and cannot be easily reduced to an algorithm.
- For instance, if there are children with special needs, parties may consider not dividing the insurance policies and setting them aside for the children’s benefit. If the children need to stay near their schools, selling the matrimonial flat may not be the most viable option. Moreover, on the day-to-day needs, their monthly expenses would be more appropriately dealt with by fixing child maintenance, as opposed to assets division.
- Divorce AIDE has received positive feedback from social workers, judges and our partners. For example, feedback from the Community Justice Centre noted it is:
(a) “very easy to use”;
(b) “helpful in explaining and answering my questions on divorce”; and
(c) “an outstanding tool that litigants-in-person will find useful”.
- We will refine Divorce AIDE in the upcoming year, a point mentioned by Mr Nair. Our efforts are two-fold:
(a) First, we will collect more feedback to see how the tool has been useful and how it can be further improved.
(b) Second, we are exploring possible integration with MyInfo. If successful, this will provide a more seamless experience, as users’ CPF and HDB information may be extracted directly.
- There are various forms of support for self-represented persons (SRPs) who commence, or wish to commence, proceedings.
- Dr Tan Wu Meng shared how his resident, an SRP, had to approach CrimsonLogic and VITAL. He asked about the role of these intermediaries, and if they complicate the process for SRPs. Let me explain.
- First, the Judiciary’s case filing system, eLitigation, enables lawyers with a subscription to e-file documents and pay filing fees. SRPs can approach the CrimsonLogic Service Bureau, who will assist them with their e-filing and collect the filing fees.
- Second, SRPs generally do not interact with VITAL. SRPs only interact with VITAL when a court deposit is required. For example, when an SRP files an appeal, he or she is required to provide security for costs. SRPs would have to deposit the security with the Accountant-General, with VITAL acting as its collecting agent.
- To make these processes more convenient for SRPs, several initiatives have been rolled out, and others are in the pipeline.
- In 2022, the Family Justice Courts (FJC) introduced an e-service that allows SRPs to e-file for simplified divorce, without having to go to the CrimsonLogic Service Bureau. It was designed with SRPs in mind. Amongst other things, the e-service uses guided questions to assist applicants in filling up Court forms. It is also integrated with MyInfo, which allows an applicant’s particulars to be automatically populated.
- Further, as Mr Pillai alluded to, a similar e-service for straightforward probate applications is targeted to be introduced by 2023. This will be applicable to the large majority of uncontested probate cases, such as those involving a single executor and with lesser quantum of assets.
- For other applications, the CrimsonLogic Service Bureau has been re-sited from Chinatown Point to the one-stop service hubs in the Supreme Court and State Courts. SRPs can file applications via the Service Bureau, access case management systems from self-help terminals, and carry out related court processes from a single location. A similar service hub will be set up in FJC, when it moves to its new location in 2024.
- As for putting up security for costs, FJC has published an online guide on the procedure for doing so, and VITAL’s contact information. Furthermore, VITAL has allowed SRPs to make e-payments since 2020.
- Dr Tan raised the issue of delays in VITAL processing payments. I would like to inform Dr Tan that as part of the Courts’ efforts to streamline processes for court users, today, an appellant can file an appeal as long as he or she is able to produce a signed declaration and evidence of a bank transfer. This ensures that any delay in processing the payment or issuing the receipt does not result in the appellant missing out on the filing deadline.
- Besides these enhancements, there are two further areas that we have worked on, to make family justice more accessible to SRPs.
- First, we try to ensure information on court processes and procedures are readily available.
(a) The Courts publish on their website comprehensive information about court processes and procedures.
(b) FJC also published a case management guidebook which guides SRPs through the divorce process, and a guidebook on common family court orders.
(c) For those not fluent in English, digital and physical brochures on family law and court processes in vernacular languages, are available at the Judiciary’s website and at FJC.
(d) Where more explanation is needed, SRPs can seek help from the Community Justice Centre (CJC) located within the premises of the State Courts and FJC.
- Second, there are online tools and resources that SRPs may find useful.
(a) Besides Divorce AIDE that I mentioned earlier, the Legal Aid Bureau’s iLAB chatbot provides tailored legal information on divorce, family violence, and issues related to employment.
(b) It is also able to generate simple legal documents. In the past year, information on civil cases were added to iLAB. Currently, there are 10 topics in iLAB.
(c) Responding to Mr Pillai, iLAB is useful for users who have little to no legal knowledge. Users have also given feedback that iLAB saves time and is convenient to use.
(d) We will continue collating feedback to improve iLAB.
- The efforts to enhance access to justice in family proceedings is a continuing one. MinLaw has been working with MSF and FJC on a Bill to effect the remaining recommendations of the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System.
- The proposed changes aim to build on our efforts to reduce acrimony in family proceedings, and ensure a fair outcome without undue complexity and costs for the parties. This increases access to justice for litigants, especially those who cannot afford legal representation.
- An area of attention is the current challenges in enforcing maintenance orders, a point mentioned by Mr Pillai. Non-compliance with maintenance orders has an adverse impact on those who are relying on the maintenance payments to go about their daily lives. Unresolved disputes over maintenance also hinder the parties from moving forward with their lives.
- I would like to share the story of Ms B, a divorced working mother with two young children. Upon divorce, the ex-husband was ordered to make monthly maintenance payments to Ms B for the two children. After a few months, the ex-husband began missing payments. At one point, he failed to make payment for more than five months. The situation caused Ms B great distress – she had to cover the substantial costs of the children’s school fees, transport and daily necessities. In less than a year, Ms B filed two applications to enforce the maintenance order. She had to spend considerable time and was unable to afford a lawyer to aid her in the proceedings, given her financial responsibilities to her children.
- The proposed reforms will make the enforcement of maintenance orders simpler and more efficient. For example, in the current process, parties have to make several trips to court. The reforms aim to streamline proceedings and reduce the number of trips that parties make to Court. This will reduce the burden on those without lawyers.
- We will provide more details in due course.
Update on the Protection from Harassment Court
- Next, the Protection from Harassment Court (PHC) was established to provide simplified, expedited processes to enhance access to justice for harassment victims.
- Responding to Mr Patrick Tay, the data is encouraging. Since its operationalisation on 1 June 2021, more than 90% of the Protection Order (PO) and False Statement Order applications filed were on the simplified track. Anecdotally, the majority of cases are handled by the litigants, without the need for legal representation.
- There has been a significant increase in the number of PO applications, as well as orders granted.
(a) From 2019 to 2020, 319 PO applications were filed; 146 POs were granted in that period.
(b) From 2021 to 2022, there were 924 PO applications filed – 866 applications were filed from the operationalisation of the PHC on 1 June 2021 to 31 December 2022.
(c) Out of the 924 PO applications:
(i) 302 POs were ordered.
(ii) 413 PO applications were withdrawn. Applications may be withdrawn because parties reached an out of court resolution, or the claimant decided there is no longer a need for a PO.
(iii) The remaining 209 PO applications are either pending resolution or were dismissed.
(iv) Where urgent relief is sought, the PHC generally hears the application within two to three working days from the date of application.
- Mr Tay asked for a breakdown of the types of cases. Members should note that one case may involve more than one type of harassment. Out of the 866 PO applications filed from 1 June 2021 to 31 December 2022,
(a) 304 cases involved cyberbullying;
(b) 295 cases involved doxxing;
(c) 203 cases involved workplace harassment;
(d) 103 cases involved sexual harassment; and
(e) 75 cases involved harassment by debt collectors, moneylenders or creditors.
- Mr Pillai resurfaced his proposal from last year to amend the PHC rules to summarily determine and dispose of frivolous and vexatious claims, without notifying the respondent.
- As explained in a Written Reply to Mr Pillai’s question in Parliament previously, as part of due process, the Courts will usually require the respondent’s side of the story to determine whether the claim is indeed frivolous or vexatious. We should also be mindful that many claimants in the PHC are SRPs, so the bar cannot be placed too high. Otherwise, this could inadvertently prevent access to justice for them.
- On the other hand, the PHC has powers to deal with frivolous or vexatious cases.
(a) For claims filed through simplified proceedings, the PHC has powers to make such orders and directions as it thinks fit for the just, expeditious and economic disposal of a case. The PHC therefore may, notwithstanding that the proceedings are already simplified, deal with a case which is frivolous, vexatious or otherwise an abuse of process in an expedited way.
(b) For claims filed through standard proceedings, the normal procedures in the Rules of Court, such as striking out, are available.
(c) Further, the PHC can award costs and disbursements against a claimant who brings a frivolous or vexatious case. This should deter any litigant who thinks they can misuse the PHC’s simplified processes.
(d) Finally, the General Division of the High Court is empowered to make a restraint order against a claimant, who has repeatedly commenced actions totally without merit. This prevents such a claimant from commencing actions or applications.
Access to Justice Programme Office
- Various stakeholders, including the Judiciary, are pulling in the same direction to enhance access to justice.
- The Judiciary is setting up an Access to Justice Programme Office. This will provide even greater emphasis and focus on access to justice from a Whole-of-Judiciary perspective.
- The Office will:
(a) Coordinate access to justice efforts across the Courts;
(b) Review existing citizen-facing services and processes; and
(c) Embark on new projects to improve the experience of Court users.
- For a start, some of the areas of focus will include:
(a) Enhancing accessibility to information;
(b) Integrating services for the greater convenience of Court users; and
(c) Improving the overall end-to-end service experience.
B. Strengthening our legal system to uphold the Rule of Law to meet evolving societal needs
- I turn to upcoming changes to strengthen Singapore’s legal system.
Civil Enforcement Framework Reforms
- As mentioned by Mr Pillai and Mr Derrick Goh, MinLaw has been studying possible reforms to the civil enforcement framework.
- MinLaw’s project focuses on making enforcement cheaper and easier, so that those who have succeeded in their claims, are not denied their fruits simply because they feel enforcement is too complex or expensive.
- Possible changes include:
(a) Giving the Court more powers to identify the assets and means of a non-compliant judgment debtor – with more information, the successful party can better decide whether and how to enforce the judgment; and
(b) Introducing new powers to deter and punish non-compliance with Court orders.
- This will go some way towards alleviating the difficulties faced by judgment creditors today.
- More broadly, these reforms will ensure Singapore’s legal system remains robust, efficient, and business-friendly. This will, in turn, help to preserve Singapore’s status as a dispute resolution hub, a point raised by Mr Goh.
- The proposed reforms, which affect enforcement of all civil judgments, are complex and may have far-reaching changes that have to be studied carefully. We have been working closely, over the past year, with the Judiciary and other stakeholders to refine the proposals. More details will be announced in due course.
Amendments to modernise statutory declarations, oaths and affirmations
- I would highlight technology is an integral aspect in many of our initiatives, as it strengthens access to the legal system – a perspective mentioned by Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim.
- We are taking steps in this direction. I will, in a short while, mention how we are using technology to optimise State land.
- At this juncture, I will share our intention to make clear that legal acts and instruments such as statutory declarations and notarisations can be done remotely through video-conferencing and electronic signing. We will introduce legislation, in due course. This will provide greater convenience to lawyers and their clients.
Workers and Insolvent Companies
- Lastly, I would like to address two points.
- Mr Tay touched on workers of insolvent companies. This issue has been addressed on numerous occasions in this House.
- Exposure to business risks is something all companies face. When these risks eventuate and a company gets into trouble, a restructuring aims to provide the company space to recover. The Court supervises the restructuring process to balance the interests of the various stakeholders, including employees. If the company is successfully rehabilitated, workers are more likely to hold on to their jobs.
- If the restructuring is unsuccessful and the company enters into insolvent winding up:
(a) Section 203 of the Insolvency, Restructuring and Dissolution Act gives priority to certain claims.
(b) Out of the nine categories of claims under section 203, five categories give priority to workers.
(c) The only categories with priority over worker claims are the costs and expenses of winding up. These are necessary for the winding up to proceed smoothly.
(d) In fact, worker claims rank above claims by the Government in respect of tax assessed and goods and services tax due.
- Mr Tay highlights insolvent companies having insufficient assets to pay workers even with the statutory priority scheme, and difficulties faced by workers in dealing with judicial managers.
- Mr Tay has previously suggested that MOM could advance money to workers and thereafter stand in their place as a preferred creditor.
(a) This proposal was not adopted because while it may provide short term relief to workers, it may lead to a bigger systemic problem in the long term by causing market distortion and more defaults on salary payments in the expectation of public funds being deployed.
(b) That said, lower wage workers with unpaid salaries may receive financial assistance from the Short-term Relief Fund and the Migrant Workers’ Assistance Fund. Such assistance is also available where companies are not insolvent.
- Finally, judicial managers must deal with multiple considerations and balance competing interests. Marshalling and allocating resources, including to employees to keep the business going, would depend very much on the specific facts and circumstances.
Hague Service Convention
- Mr Pillai asked about Singapore’s planned accession to the Hague Service Convention.
- I am pleased to update that we have been actively working on amendments to the relevant pieces of legislation to give effect to our obligations under the Convention. We aim to introduce the amendments by the fourth quarter this year, at the same time when the Convention enters into force for Singapore.
(II) Optimising Land Use through Greater Collaboration and Use of Technology
- Lastly, I move to our initiatives to optimise land use and related matters.
- At the outset, we are focused on helping Singapore and its people. With our limited land, we need to constantly innovate. This is not innovating for its own sake, but with the goal of improving the quality of lives, and building vibrant spaces and communities.
- We are, thus, pressing ahead on:
(a) Digitalisation of the conveyancing process;
(b) Evolution and mainstreaming of geospatial technologies; and
(c) Rejuvenation of State land.
A. Leveraging technology to streamline processes for greater efficiency
Digital Conveyancing Portal
- We have embarked on, in my view, an exciting project: The Digital Conveyancing Portal (DCP).
- Many of us would have probably experienced the conveyancing process, which currently takes a rather manual approach. This will soon be a thing of the past, as the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) brings to fruition its vision of the DCP as a fully integrated, secure, efficient, transparent and paperless process. The DCP will include the facilitation of e-payments, and digital signing of documents. Users will also be able to retrieve details and check for updates with greater ease.
- Mr Lim Biow Chuan has raised the point on potential fraud. This is something that SLA will consider in its design and implementation of the DCP. In terms of security, SLA will put in place robust data and cyber security measures, including data encryption and active monitoring of data access to detect any suspicious online activity.
- Besides benefitting buyers and sellers, the DCP will make it more efficient for those involved in the conveyancing process. This will be a tool that assists lawyers, financial institutions, real estate agents, and developers.
- Responding to Mr Zhulkarnain, SLA had extensively engaged stakeholders since 2019, and will continue to do so at each stage of the DCP’s development to ensure that the end product meets the needs of all parties. SLA will continue to raise awareness on the use and benefits of the DCP through these engagements.
- We announced in January that we have appointed the vendor for the development of the DCP. We target to implement the first phase, which will comprise the Option to Purchase stage for developer sale, resale, and sub-sale transactions, by 2024. We are working towards full implementation by 2026.
- Mr Lim and Mr Zhulkarnain asked about the DCP’s potential impact on jobs. We expect most individuals will continue to engage lawyers. Given the high value nature of property transactions, this serves as a safeguard of the individual’s interests. Nevertheless, such digitalisation projects will naturally, over time, result in less emphasis being placed on certain processes or skillsets. The developments bring value to the larger community by making processes simpler and faster. Hence, we encourage conveyancing practices to adapt to, innovate, and leverage on the DCP to deliver better service to their clients.
- Geospatial technology has transformative potential on the way we live, work and play. This can unlock opportunities to benefit businesses and citizens, and enable sustainability efforts.
- Prof Koh Lian Pin will be happy to hear that SLA has been actively engaging the industry, institutions, and community to mainstream the use of geospatial capabilities, and promote greater awareness and understanding of their potential.
- Last year, SLA signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with key real estate and industry players, such as the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore, Singapore Business Federation, and real estate agencies.
- Through these MOUs, geospatial data and platforms, including OneMap, will be leveraged to benefit their members and customers. These include enhancing building design, operations, and maintenance.
- In the science and environment community, SLA started partnerships with various agencies to deepen the use of geospatial data for weather monitoring, coastal protection, flood mitigation, carbon-sink estimation, and climate studies.
- SLA will also be exploring how geospatial elements can be introduced in education curriculum. One such initiative is the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Innovation Challenge.
B. Continuing to optimise the use of State properties, by meeting the needs of the community, as well as economic demand
- With our limited land, it is integral that we continue to find creative ways to optimise our space in a sustainable manner, to meet the needs of our community and economic demand.
- We thank Mr Cheng Hsing Yao for suggesting an overarching plan for interim use of State land. We will explore this with relevant agencies.
- For 2022, we partnered with stakeholders and the public to enhance various State lands and properties, such as rejuvenation of Gillman Barracks, and the development of a new three-Generation Park at Yarrow Gardens.
- This year, SLA will continue to rejuvenate State-owned properties. Let me address some of the comments made by Mr Christopher de Souza, Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin and Mr Lim Biow Chuan.
Repurposing of 10 Kampong Eunos
- SLA has identified the former Kampong Eunos CC at 10 Kampong Eunos, to be repurposed as a creative accelerator and innovation studio for the youth community. SLA will work with VIVITA, a social impact organisation that seeks to empower children and youths to be changemakers for the future.
Further enhancements to Dempsey
- Through SLA’s sustained efforts over the years, we have developed the Dempsey cluster into a lifestyle destination and a place for communities to gather.
- And to retain its attractiveness, SLA improved the infrastructure to make it better. SLA and Sport Singapore launched a tender for a playfield, to offer more spaces to the community to bond through sports.
- SLA will continue to enhance Dempsey and expand it into a sustainable lifestyle destination that has many offerings.
- Innovative concepts and sustainability initiatives will be introduced, to complement the current diverse mix of lifestyle activities.
- Even as SLA rolls out new plans, we must balance the impact on nature and the environment – a point raised by Ms Nadia Samdin.
- SLA is cognisant of the need for this balance, and has upheld the rustic nature of the Southern Islands, and in general, only low intensity development has been carried out.
- SLA works with various agencies, including NParks, to safeguard the biodiversity and heritage of the lands, even as interest and the number of visitors grows.
- In conclusion, whilst we have a diverse slate of initiatives, these are united by the thread of bettering the lives of people in Singapore, and advancing our economy and society, through laws and policies.
- Thank you, Madam.
Last updated on 27 Feb 2023