Inside Singapore’s move to virtual court hearings

By Shirley Tay

Toh Yung Cheong, Chief Information Officer of Singapore’s State Courts, shares how his team uses technology to meet justice needs during Covid-19 and beyond.

Image: Joe Gratz - CC BY 1.0

Picture a typical law office, and a room crammed with creaking shelves, leather backed volumes of case law and mountains of paperwork may come to mind.

But Covid-19 has left no room for such archaic systems. Even in the midst of a pandemic, justice must be served. In Singapore, remote court hearings and an online dispute resolution tool are part of this transformation.

GovInsider speaks to Toh Yung Cheong, Chief Information and Chief Data Officer at Singapore’s State Courts, to find out how his team is using digital to deliver legal services.

Justice still goes on

First, virtual court hearings. These were implemented in April and “represented an important means by which the Courts could sustain access to justice during the pandemic and hopefully enhance this into the future,” said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in May.

But as the uptake of online judicial services increases, the State Courts need to ensure that they are accessible to everyone. The courts cannot assume that everyone has an “internet device fast enough to run the latest software” to participate in virtual hearings, Toh says.

Video-conferencing rooms are now available on the Courts’ premises for certain types of hearings. “Such a room with facilities could be well located in the community instead of the courthouse – this is something worth looking into,” he says.

Filing disputes remotely

The State Courts have built a separate tool to resolve small lawsuits, community disputes and employment claims online. “A lot of thought was put in by the team to design a system that would support users through the filing process and manage their cases without the need to step into the Courts,” he says.

The Community Justice and Tribunals System is “revolutionary”, he adds. An e-negotiation tool allows parties to securely discuss disputes and obtain a court order online, Toh adds. Users can also opt for a trained mediator to assist.

More than 30,000 cases have been filed online since the system’s launch in 2017. In the future, users will be able to file for protection from harassment without the need for legal representation or to go through a service bureau, Toh says.

Alternative dispute resolutions outside of courtrooms have been “very effective” for motor accidents, Toh says. They account for about a third of all civil writs filed in the courts, and an online platform will “very likely” lower the costs of resolving these disputes, Chief Justice Menon has said.

The courts plan to launch a service to resolve motor disputes online, Toh says. An outcome simulator asks users a series of questions about the motor accident before arriving at possible liability outcomes. An indicative range of compensation is then provided to the users.

Data analytics

The State Courts use data analytics to allocate resources effectively. For instance, it predicts the expected caseload so it can be prepared for upcoming trials, says Toh. Meanwhile, a justice scorecard tracks the performance of the courts including wait times, and appeal and mediation success rates. The measurement process is automated, and allows management to review and analyse the courts’ performance and alignment to its goals.

The courts will launch a new customer relationship management system this year to understand user needs and improve service delivery. “Data analytics also helps us to gain a better understanding of our court users”, says Toh.

Toh believes the State Courts should prioritise feedback from court users to continuously improve its digital delivery. This can help “identify their unmet justice needs and potential areas where the use of remote communication technology would provide the greatest benefits,” he notes.

Access to justice is vital, even in the midst of great turmoil. As the virus arrived and government buildings closed globally, the scales of justice have gained a digital display.

This article has been amended to note that alternative dispute resolution in general, not the Online Dispute Resolution Platform for Motor Accident Claims Online, has been “very effective” in resolving motor claims. GovInsider apologises for the error.