The judicial power of Singapore is vested in the Supreme Court and the State Courts.
The Supreme Court is a superior court of record and consists of the High Court, which exercises both original and appellate jurisdiction, and the Court of Appeal, which exercises appellate jurisdiction.
As of 1 April 2019, the Supreme Court bench consists of 20 judges (including the chief justice and four judges of appeal), seven judicial commissioners, four senior judges and 16 international judges. The chief justice, judges of appeal and judges of the High Court have tenure until the age of 65, unless further extended by approval of the president. Judicial commissioners are appointed on a short-term contract basis, but enjoy the same powers and immunities as a judge of the High Court during their term. The senior judges and international judges are appointed for a period of three years.
The Court of Appeal, which is the highest appellate court in Singapore, hears appeals against decisions made by a judge at the High Court (including the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC)). Appeals to the Court of Appeal are usually heard by a bench of three judges, although some appeals are heard by only two judges. Where necessary, the Court of Appeal may comprise five or more judges. Judges of the High Court may sit in the Court of Appeal on such occasion as the chief justice requires.
The High Court hears cases at first instance as well as appeals against decisions made by a judge in the State Courts. The High Court also exercises supervisory and revisionary jurisdiction over all State Courts. Unless specified otherwise by any written law, proceedings in the High Court are heard before a single judge. The judges of appeal may also sit in the High Court as a judge.
As a superior court of record, the High Court has unlimited original jurisdiction for civil claims. Save for probate matters, the action must be commenced in the High Court where the value of the claim exceeds S$250,000. Probate matters are commenced in the High Court only if the value of the deceased’s estate exceeds S$5 million, or if resealing of a foreign grant is involved. Ancillary matters in family proceedings involving assets exceeding S$1.5 million are also heard in the High Court. Further, admiralty matters, company winding-up and bankruptcy proceedings and applications for the admission of advocates and solicitors are exclusively heard by the High Court.
Within the High Court, various specialist lists have been set up for:
- tort claims, intellectual property/information technology;
- finance, securities, banking, complex commercial cases;
- building and construction, shipbuilding, complex and technical cases;
- shipping and insurance;
- revenue law;
- public law and judicial review; and
- company, insolvency, trusts.
Certain judges of the High Court identified as having expertise in these specialised areas of law would generally be assigned to hear matters in the respective areas.
The SICC is a division of the High Court designed as a specialist court for transnational commercial disputes, and its proceedings are governed by its own set of rules and practice directions that follow international best practice. The SICC provides for various special features in line with its international character, such as adjudication by specialist commercial judges and foreign representation for parties. The SICC has jurisdiction to hear and try an action if:
- the claim in the action is of an international and commercial nature;
- the parties to the action have submitted to the SICC’s jurisdiction under a written jurisdiction agreement; and
- the parties to the action do not seek any relief in the form of, or connected with, a prerogative order (including a mandatory order, a prohibiting order, a quashing order or an order for review of detention).
The SICC may also hear cases that are transferred from the Singapore High Court. Questions relating to whether the SICC has jurisdiction shall be heard and determined by the SICC. SICC proceedings may be heard by either one or three judges.
Within the State Courts, civil claims are handled by the district courts, magistrates’ courts, employment claims tribunals (ECT) and small claims tribunals.
Civil claims with a value of up to S$60,000 may be commenced in the magistrates’ courts. From 1 November 2014, a simplified civil procedure, which includes features such as upfront disclosure of documents, limitation on interlocutory applications and early and robust case management, applies to magistrates’ courts proceedings. Civil claims with a value exceeding S$60,000 but not exceeding S$250,000 (or in the case of road traffic accident claims or claims for personal injuries arising out of industrial accidents, the value of the claim exceeds S$60,000 but does not exceed S$500,000) may be commenced in the district courts. However, a district court may have jurisdiction to try an action where the amount in dispute exceeds S$250,000 (or S$500,000, in the case of road traffic accident claims or claims for personal injuries arising out of industrial accidents) if all parties agree. Parties to district court proceedings may by consent adopt the simplified procedure in use for magistrates’ courts actions.
The ECT (which commenced operations in April 2017) hears only salary-related (whether statutory or contractual) employment disputes for all employees, claims for wrongful dismissal and claims for salary in lieu of notice of termination by all employers, subject to a claim limit of S$20,000, or if the case has undergone a formal mediation process, S$30,000. Before a claim may be heard by the ECT, parties must undergo compulsory mediation at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management. The proceedings in the ECT are designed to be informal and judge-led, and legal representation is not allowed. The ECT is not bound by the usual rules of evidence and may inform itself on any matter in such manner as it thinks fit.
The small claims tribunals were established to allow certain types of low-value claims to be adjudicated expeditiously and with minimal formalities (and costs). As such, parties are not allowed legal representation at the tribunals. The small claims tribunals have jurisdiction to hear claims not exceeding S$10,000, although the jurisdiction can be raised to S$20,000 with the consent of all parties in writing. Only certain types of civil claims, such as claims relating to contracts for the sale of goods or provision of services, can be heard by the small claims tribunals.
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