CJ on ensuring justice in the time of Covid-19
Pandemic must become the occasion to reforge and refine legal processes, he says.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has flagged a situation of "real concern" that has arisen following the coronavirus pandemic.
It stems from a gulf caused by the fact that the people who need more legal help, such as families in distress who need relief from the courts or small businesses seeking loans to restructure, are least able to pay the lawyers' fees, he noted.
Such cash-strapped clients would put a "downward pressure on legal fees" and this would, in turn, reduce legal firms' willingness or ability to do pro bono work.
"The gulf between society's legal needs, on the one hand, and its ability to pay for the required services, on the other, coupled with the law firms' reduced ability to help bridge that gap through pro bono work is a real concern," he told a webinar last week on how Covid-19 will affect the courts' approach in delivering justice.
The virtual seminar, with registered participants from more than 40 countries, was organised by the Judicial Integrity Network in Asean, a partnership of several Asean judiciaries, including Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.
Speaking on the topic "Justice in times of Covid-19", he urged the courts to lead the discussion on how to administer it.
At the same time, he called for them to adopt a "far more proactive" approach in providing information and assistive tools to help court users understand their options, guide them through the court process and promote amicable settlements.
"In this post-pandemic world, this could prove to be an important way for us to help nurse our ailing societies back to health," he added.
Chief Justice Menon also urged the judges to "actively encourage" parties to consider settlement, especially in situations where litigation would be wasteful, destructive or otherwise do more harm than good.
"Covid-19 must become the occasion to reforge and refine our processes for administering justice," he said.
He shared a few of the key lessons the Singapore judiciary learnt from the circuit breaker period, the challenges ahead and the likely impact of the pandemic on the future of the courts and legal profession.
He said a few days into the circuit breaker period, a strategic planning group was formed to review measures implemented and examine challenges on an ongoing basis.
Also, the courts are exploring the use of fast-track procedures and hearings based on submissions without physical presence of the parties, among other ideas, to transform the court process and address the growing caseload, he added.
Chief Justice Menon noted, among other things, the dramatic rise in the use of videoconferencing technology such as Zoom.
He also singled out the special needs of litigants-in-person (LIPs) - or people who represent themselves - even as the courts pursue digital transformation.
Such LIPs are often legally untrained and many also lack the equipment or know-how to use the court's processes.
He cited the Family Justice Courts (FJC), which trained the many LIPs they deal with to use the Zoom app and even issued users a technical guidebook to ensure access to justice.
LIPs can also use any of the 14 Zoom rooms at two sites, in Havelock Square and Maxwell Road, to link to the relevant family judge.
About 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the FJC's users attended hearings via the Zoom rooms during the circuit breaker period. As a result, the FJC was able to hear around 33 per cent of their caseload - or more than 2,400 cases - during the circuit breaker in spite of the movement restrictions, said Chief Justice Menon.
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