The Singapore Judiciary’s function is to administer justice to the people of Singapore. It is made up of the Supreme Court and the State Courts (previously named Subordinate Courts).
The Supreme Court consists of the High Court and the Court of Appeal and hears both criminal and civil cases.
The High Court exercises original and appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases. It hears cases in the first instance as well as cases on appeal from the State Courts. The court’s jurisdiction is as follows:
- Civil cases where the claim exceeds S$250,000
- Probate matters if the estate exceeds S$3,000,000
- Ancillary matters in family proceedings where assets equal S$1,500,000 or more
In criminal cases, the High Court is empowered to try all cases. In general, the High Court tries cases where the offences are punishable by death or with imprisonment terms exceeding 10 years.
The High Court can also hear points of law in special cases submitted by a District Court or Magistrate Court. The High Court can reverse decisions from the State Courts, or ask the State Courts to conduct a new trial on the matter.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal hears appeals of civil and criminal cases from the High Court. The Court of Appeal is presided over by the Chief Justice, and in his absence, a Judge of Appeal or a Judge of the High Court. The Court of Appeal is usually made up of three Judges. However, certain appeals may be heard by only two, five or any greater uneven number of Judges.
If you have a civil case (e.g. a claim for breach of contract, or damage caused by negligence), the amount of your claim will determine which court you commence your action in.
In general, civil cases involving claims not exceeding S$60,000 are dealt with by the Magistrate Courts. Claims of more than S$60,000 but not exceeding S$250,000 are dealt with by the District Courts. Claims above S$250,000 are dealt with by the High Court.
The law does not require you to be represented by a lawyer unless you are a body corporate (e.g. a limited company or a private limited company).
Anyone who has a claim (known as the Plaintiff) may issue a Writ of Summons or an Originating Summons and have it served to the other party (known as the Defendant). If the Defendant does not dispute the Plaintiff's claim, the Defendant may wish to get in touch with either the Plaintiff or his/her lawyer to settle the claim immediately. By doing so, both parties would incur less legal costs.
If the Defendant disputes the claim, the Defendant should consult a lawyer quickly. The Defendant's lawyer will then file a document (Memorandum of Appearance) in Court on the Defendant's behalf to dispute the claim. This has to be done within 8 days of the receipt of the Writ of Summons or the Originating Summons. Instead of appointing a lawyer, the Defendant may also wish to file the Memorandum of Appearance by attending at the Registry of the appropriate Court.
Note that refusing to acknowledge service of a Writ of Summons does not make the service of the Summons invalid. It also does not prevent the Plaintiff from proceeding further.
The Plaintiff can obtain an Order of Court (Judgment) to compel the Defendant to pay up the amount claimed if the Memorandum of Appearance is not filed in time.
The Defendant must then file his/her Defence to the claim in Court and also deliver a copy of the Defence to the Plaintiff's address of service or the Plaintiff's lawyers at their office address within 22 days from the date that he/she was served with the Writ of Summons. If the Defendant has any counterclaim against the Plaintiff, the Defendant can also make it in the same action brought by the Plaintiff.
The Plaintiff may deliver to the Defendant his/her reply (and defence to a counterclaim, if any) within 14 days after the Defence (and counterclaim) has been delivered to him/her.
Parties may appeal against decisions of a District Judge or Magistrate to the High Court. From the High Court, parties may appeal to the Court of Appeal unless the claims are prohibited from appeal under the law.
The State Courts of Singapore comprise the District Courts and Magistrate Courts—both of which oversee criminal and civil matters—as well as the Coroner’s Courts and a small civil claims court called the Small Claims Tribunal.
The Coroner's Court holds inquiries to determine if crime was involved in someone’s unnatural death. Such inquiries are held when there is reason to suspect that a person has died suddenly or unnaturally, by violence, or when the cause of death is unknown and in situations where the law requires an inquiry.
The Community Court deals with special cases involving community resources and criminal justice. Such cases include:
- Youthful offenders (aged 16 to 18)
- Offenders with mental disabilities
- Neighbourhood disputes
- Attempted suicide cases
- Family violence cases
- Carnal connection offences committed by youthful offenders
- Abuse and cruelty to animals
- Cases which impact on race relations issues
- Selected cases involving offenders aged 65 years and above
Small Claims Tribunals
The Small Claims Tribunals handles small claim disputes.
The Tribunals have jurisdiction to hear civil claims not exceeding S$10,000. The jurisdiction can be raised to S$20,000 if the Claimant and Respondent consent in writing. All claims must be filed within 1 year from the date of the incident.
The procedure is meant to be an informal, easy and inexpensive way to solve conflict. If you want to seek a claim, this is what you can expect:
- You will first attend a Consultation before the Registrar, who will mediate the claim and assist the parties in resolving the dispute.
- If a claim is not settled at the Consultation before the Registrar, it will generally be fixed for hearing before a Referee within 7 days from the date of Consultation. The Referee will also explore the possibility of settling the claim before adjudicating on it.
- If you choose to bring a claim to the Small Claims Tribunal, your lawyer will not be allowed to come with you, as lawyers are not permitted to represent any of the parties in proceedings before the Tribunal.
- You may appeal against decisions in the Small Claims Tribunal to the High Court on points of law. You will first have to apply to the District Judge for leave to appeal within 14 days of the Referee's order, and only if the application is granted can you then file a Notice of Appeal to the High Court. This Notice of Appeal must be filed within 1 month of the District Judge's order granting leave.