Singapore courts have always been in favour of parties settling their dispute through various modes of alternative or amicable resolution, such as mediation. Starting from 1 April 2022, new procedures for conducting civil cases will take effect, and amongst a key feature of the Rules of Court 2021 (“ROC21”) is to further encourage – some might even say redirect – parties to settle their disputes through other means rather than in litigation. In particular, there is a whole new Order 5 devoted to this issue, which creates a more extensive duty to attempt amicable resolution.
Amicable resolution as the first step
The claimant is now required to “make an offer of amicable resolution before commencing” the suit. This is an express step that now extends to all civil suits before the suit starts, compared to the different regimes in the different courts where sometimes, parties are required to exchange offers to settle during the course of the suit. So now the defendant has an opportunity to avoid litigation, instead of hoping that the claimant will agree to mediation partway through the proceedings, and the claimant also does not have to worry about appearing weak by offering an olive branch so soon.
Does that mean that claimants hands are tied, especially if it needs to urgently obtain court orders to protect its interests (such as a freezing order to prevent the defendant from dissipating its assets)? Arguably not – the exception of “reasonable grounds” may be wide enough to include situations which would lead the claimant to apply for such orders without notifying the other party. It remains to be seen on whether this argument may be abused by parties or counsel who wish to leverage on the state’s resources to strong-arm the other party.
Offers and rejections must be in writing
In addition, an offer of amicable resolution (“OAR”) must be in written form, and be open for at least 14 days subject to parties agreement. In turn, the rejection must also be communicated in writing. This has several important implications for parties conducting civil cases:
The Court’s power to compel amicable resolution
The previous judicial policy, although pro-mediation and pro-settlement, drew the line at facilitating such alternative dispute resolution methods. However under the new ROC2021, the court now has the power to order parties to attempt an amicable resolution process. Even if a party continues to refuse, the court has the power to order that party to submit a sealed document containing the reasons for refusal, which then can be opened at the conclusion of court proceedings to determine if the refusal at that time was a reasonable one.
Not only is this relevant in terms of legal costs, but it would also force parties to evaluate their positions and measure it against their business interests. It would also prevent parties from making afterthought submissions to justify their previous refusal, especially since the sealed document would be a contemporaneous record of the position. This would certainly deter parties or even counsel from making a cavalier refusal of any attempt to settle the dispute out of court.
Clearer cost consequences of refusing amicable resolution
At the conclusion of the trial, the court will now consider the refusal to attempt the process of amicable resolution as a relevant factor in ordering costs, since it is now listed expressly in the ROC2021.
A successful party can be penalised for not making any effort at amicable resolution, which would upset the traditional cost-benefit analysis of going to trial with a strong case. Even though such situations may be rare – for example, where the claimant is awarded only nominal damages despite having multiple heads of claim, which implies that the suit was not economically justifiable (but also raises questions of whether such cost-benefit analyses should be applied on hindsight) – the possibility remains open.
In additon, an unsuccessful party may be ordered to pay more costs for his refusal to attempt amicable resolution, even though it is not clear at the moment how this higher amount would be calculated. The possibility of higher costs should at least create a financial incentive to attempt amicable resolution.
A new landscape for mediation?
Looking at the new ROC2021, court users can now expect to be diverted out of the legal system to settle their disputes in more economically rational ways. Therefore, it is important to seek advice from counsel who are trained and experienced in mediation so as to maximise the opportunity to efficiently resolve business disputes.
If you have any questions relating to business dispute prevention or how to settle a business dispute in Singapore, feel free to email or drop me a LinkedIn message. I will do my best to respond within 24 hours.
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