Singapore: courts and law firms subject to circuit-breaker measures with limited exceptions

By Jonathan Choo, YiHui Teo, Shaun Lee, Zhe Ning Low

04-2020

In an effort to curb the escalation of locally-transmitted COVID-19 infections, the Singapore government announced "circuit-breaker" measures on 3 April 2020. From 7 April 2020 to 4 May 2020 (both dates inclusive) (the "Relevant Period"), schools and "non-essential" workplace premises will be closed so as to minimise movements and interactions in public and private places. In line with the "circuit-breaker" measures, the Singapore courts will hear only "essential" and "urgent" matters during the Relevant Period.

Closure of "non-essential" workplace premises 

As part of the enhanced "circuit-breaker" measures, all "non-essential" businesses are required to stop operations at their physical workplaces, though work may still be performed by telecommuting from home. 

Essential services include food and beverage outlets, food suppliers, healthcare, social services, financial services, cleaning services, water, energy and environment related services, transport services, telecommunications services, construction, banking and finance and other selected services required for daily living. A comprehensive list of essential services can be accessed at https://covid.gobusiness.gov.sg/essentialservices/

As such, save for law practices providing legal services in "essential" areas, law firms are also required to close their office premises during the Relevant Period. The following is the exclusive list of legal services deemed to be "essential". 

  1. Essential and urgent matters specified in the Registrar's Circulars issued by each court in respect of criminal, civil and family matters wherein during the Relevant Period, court attendance by the solicitor is required by the court and/or adjudication hearings fixed under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act. 
  2. Commercial transactions or actions having statutory, regulatory or contractual deadlines falling within the Relevant Period for which no waiver or deferment has been or will be granted or transactions or actions for which completion is due or time is of the essence in this said period. 
  3. Conveyancing transactions with deadlines where time is of the essence or with milestone deadlines to be met within the Relevant Period. 
  4. Urgent and essential Wills and Probate related services required within the Relevant Period for which no deferment may be made. 

Singapore courts adjourn non-urgent and non-essential hearings 

Following the announcement of the "circuit-breaker" measures, the Honourable Chief Justice directed that the Supreme Court, State Courts and Family Justice Courts will strictly only hear "essential" and/or "urgent" matters in the Relevant Period (commencing 7 April 2020 for civil matters, and 13 April 2020 for criminal matters).  All but "essential" or "urgent" matters which were scheduled for hearing after 7 April 2020 or 13 April 2020 (where relevant) have been adjourned.

The following is the exclusive list of hearings in civil matters before the High Court and Court of Appeal (including Singapore International Commercial Court matters where applicable), which are deemed to be "essential" or "urgent" during the Relevant Period. 

  1. An application for urgent injunction or search order.
  2. An application to set aside an injunction or search order.
  3. An application for the arrest or release of a vessel.
  4. An application for the discharge of dangerous or perishable cargo.
  5. An application for the judicial sale of a vessel, where the safety of the crew is a concern.
  6. An appeal to the High Court under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019.
  7. An application under the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act, the Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act or the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act, if indicated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers to be urgent and assessed to be urgent.
  8. An application for urgent judicial review, e.g. in relation to implementation of COVID-19 measures.
  9. An application under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act.
  10. An appeal to the High Court under the Protection from Harassment Act, if there are issues of personal safety involved.
  11. Certain applications for extension of time or variation of court orders relating to insolvency and restructuring matters.
  12. Certain applications for interim payments in personal injury cases.
  13. An application for stay of execution of a civil judgment.
  14. Committal proceedings in respect of a person who is subject to an outstanding warrant of arrest and who needs to be produced before a Court within 48 hours.
  15. A request for any matter to be heard urgently that is assessed to be urgent.

As far as possible, hearings which proceed within the Relevant Period will be conducted using electronic means of communication, thereby dispensing with the need for physical attendance before the Court. If physical attendance at hearings is required, parties are to comply with all safe distancing and other applicable measures in the preparation, presentation and conduct of hearings during the Relevant Period. 

Where a matter does not fall within the list above but parties consider the matter to be essential and urgent, they may write to the Court (by way of letter or email or through the relevant electronic case management system) for the matter to be heard within the Relevant Period. Such a request shall be made as soon as possible. The Court may, in its discretion, hear the matter if it is assessed by the Court to be essential and urgent. However, regard should be had to the following guidelines set out by the Court:

(a) in determining whether a matter is essential and urgent, the Court will have regard to, among other factors, whether the determination of its outcome is time sensitive or if there are any legal requirements which require the matter to be heard within a specified timeframe; 

(b) a hearing is not essential or urgent merely because it is convenient for the parties to have the matter heard early; and 

(c) parties should not make the request unless they are able to ensure, as well as satisfy the Court that measures are in place to facilitate safe distancing and other applicable measures in the preparation, presentation and conduct of the hearing.

The Supreme Court, the Family Justice Court and the State Courts have each issued circulars on their websites which set out other matters which are deemed as essential and urgent in respect of criminal matters, youth matters, family violence proceedings, maintenance proceedings as well as protection orders.  

Court filings on Integrated Electronic Litigation System ("eLitigation")

Save for the adjournment of non-essential or non-urgent hearings during the Relevant Period, new court filings are still being processed and accepted on eLitigation. The Civil Registry is issuing timelines and directions for interlocutory matters which are scheduled to be heard after the Relevant Period.

Commissioning of affidavits via video-conferencing permitted but not for notarisation

Commissioning via video-conferencing is permitted subject to the current guidelines set out in the Commissioners for Oaths Manual for Advocates and Solicitors. 

The manual provides that a commissioner for oaths may administer oaths or take and receive statutory declarations via video-conferencing link. Apart from following the guidelines for such acts as if the deponent were appearing in person, the commissioner for oaths should be able to confirm that the person who signs the document is the person he claims to be and that the document he signs is the same document that the commissioner himself later signs. 

The Manual also expressly provides that the commissioner for oaths should:-

(a) be able to personally verify by visual inspection of a suitable identity document that the person whose image appears before him, is in fact the named deponent;

(b) maintain visual contact with the deponent throughout the commissioning, in particular, of the deponent executing the document; and

(c) have the means to, where necessary, read, interpret and explain the document (e.g. by use of a visualizer); and

(d) be able to confirm that the document which the commissioner later signs is the same sworn or affirmed by the deponent. For instance, that the document executed is under the safe custody of the office of the commissioner

However, notarisation by video-conferencing link is not available. Section 4(1) of the Notaries Public Act states that "Every notary public shall have and may exercise within Singapore all the powers and functions which are ordinarily exercised by notaries public in England". At present, notarisation via video conferencing is not permitted in the England and therefore will not be permitted in Singapore.

In view of ensuring business continuity and that all our clients' needs are well-taken care of during this difficult period, Bird & Bird Singapore has obtained a limited exemption from the Singapore Government which will allow a fixed team of essential staff on site at our premises and only within fixed and limited durations. 

Notwithstanding the partial-closure of the Bird & Bird Singapore office premises, our lawyers and staff are fully equipped to work remotely, supported by our robust and secure IT infrastructure. We can be contacted, as usual, via e-mail and phone. We remain committed to delivering value to our clients and to continue upholding quality, responsiveness and creativity.  

For further disputes related know-how, Click here to access to Disputes+ Bird & Bird's dedicated DR know-how portal.

This article is produced by our Singapore office, Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, and does not constitute legal advice. It is intended to provide general information only. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates on any changes as soon as these are communicated to us. Please contact our lawyers if you have any specific queries.