23 March 2018
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State Courts to set protocol, issue guide for those taking up defamation lawsuits

10 Mar 2018
Toh Ee Ming and Louisa Tang

With the high number of defamation writs being filed in the civil courts in recent years, driven by an increased use of social media and instant messaging platforms, the State Courts is rolling out several initiatives to improve court processes, including publishing a guidebook on damages.

Between 2013 and 2017, there were at least 50 defamation writs filed each year, reaching a high of 79 in 2016.

The number of defamation writes filed in the five-year period between 2008 and 2012 was not available.

In his speech at the State Courts workplan seminar on Friday (March 9), Justice See Kee Oon, who is the presiding judge of the State Courts, noted that social media and instant messaging applications “provide an easy and unrestrained forum for views to be expressed on a vast array of issues that can potentially form the subject matter of defamation actions”.

They also “facilitate repeated publication”, he said.

In view of the growing cases, the State Courts will be introducing a “pre-action” protocol aimed at guiding litigants, or people who want to take legal action, in this area.

This is because defamation law is technical and pleadings are sometimes not well-drafted, Justice See said, and trials are frequently lengthy due to factual disputes. The proceedings can also be time-consuming and costly for the parties involved.

The protocol — which is targeted to be implemented by the end of the year — thus seeks to make clear the technicalities from the start, improve the quality of pleadings, facilitate the early exchange of information, encourage constructive negotiations towards consensual outcomes and settlement, and narrow the issues for trial.

Parties will have to use standard forms for claims and responses, which will guide them to address key issues such as the defences and remedies in relation to the case. They are also required to exchange documents and offers to settle the case, as well as to explore other dispute resolution options, before filing a writ.

“This will assist the parties to better appreciate the relative strengths and weaknesses of their cases, and focus on achieving an amicable resolution,” Justice See said.


In another initiative to enhance the court process, the State Courts will develop a new guide, called the Practitioner’s Guide to Assessment of Damages in Defamation Actions.

It will be the first publication here that collates the Singapore Courts’ decisions on damages awarded in defamation cases. 
Expected to be available in June next year, it will give potential litigants “realistic” expectations of the likely damages to be awarded if they win their suits. It is also expected to help lawyers estimate the quantum of damages to seek for their clients.

Judges, too, will be able to take it as a reference to arrive at the damages to be awarded, to ensure some level of consistency across similar cases.

Justice See said that defamation actions, by nature, are “personal”, and claimants go to court with “heightened emotions and a need for vindication”. Often, they also hope for solutions that are non-monetary in nature, he added.

Having a guide will allow a potential litigant to be “better-placed to conduct a cost-benefit analysis at an early stage to assess if a case should be pursued all the way in court proceedings”, he said.

Other initiatives highlighted in the workplan include a new scheme to connect offenders to volunteer befrienders to help them along in their rehabilitation journey and to try to break the cycle of re-offending. This would apply to those who get jail terms of less than a year.

The volunteers will help to provide emotional support and direct the offenders to agencies to help them secure housing, employment or welfare assistance, and help them build a social network so that they do not turn to peers who would be a negative influence on them. This support scheme is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year.


Commenting on the new initiatives to be taken, lawyers approached by TODAY said that it is a welcomed move, for there is indeed a rising number of defamation writs being filed in court due to a greater use of social media.
However, lawyer Alfred Dodwell called for a “first-step resolution” to offer better protection to people who have been genuinely defamed, rather than have them go through a trial. “If a client is aggrieved, what recourse is allowed? People who really need it should not be put off by the high costs (of a defamation suit),” he said.
Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, who defended blogger Roy Ngerng when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took up a defamation suit against him in 2014, said that the damages a person receives when he has not suffered “any special pecuniary (monetary) losses does not justify the legal cost of pursuing the remedy”. The guide would, therefore, allow such people to examine and decide if they should sue for defamation.
“The parties involved should be trying to settle these matters amicably in mediation,” Mr Thuraisingam added.

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