2,033 hearing days lost in the State Courts: How the judiciary and AGC battled the pandemic

Singapore
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SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing “circuit breaker” to curb its spread resulted in 2,033 hearing days being lost in the State Courts alone, but also expedited the use of technology in the courts, the Chief Justice said at the opening of the legal year on Monday (Jan 11).

In another corner, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) formed a cross-divisional COVID-19 task force in January last year anticipating that the Government would need urgent legal advice and support, and provided them at an unprecedented pace and intensity, said the Attorney-General.

These were revealed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Attorney-General Lucien Wong in speeches on Monday, held at the State Courts building for the first time and with part of the audience watching via a Zoom webinar.

READ: Lessons from Parti Liyani case: AG says imperfections in 2020 exposed AGC to ‘intense scrutiny and criticism’

CJ Menon said that while this might seem routine today, it would have been “simply inconceivable just a year ago”. This was “a sign of the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on nearly every aspect of our personal and professional lives”, he said. 

“The pace with which the courts and the profession successfully pivoted to remote hearings demonstrates that we can leverage technology to optimise our processes,” he added.

The circuit breaker resulted in the vacation of many hearings, except those that were essential and urgent.

“As a result, the Court of Appeal lost 19-and-a-half hearing days, while the High Court Judges and registrars lost 694 hearing days,” said the Chief Justice. “All cases were promptly re-fixed for hearing, and many have already been substantively disposed of.”

The Family Justice Courts lost about 588 hearing days, but all held-over hearings were re-fixed and started by November last year.

In the State Courts, 2,033 hearing days were lost as a result of the vacation of hearings during the circuit breaker period, but cases that were held back have either been disposed of or have had their hearings fixed, except for ”a very small handful of cases”.

Attorney-General Lucien Wong said the COVID-19 crisis “brought out the best in AGC”, providing public agencies with crucial legal support while the Government “worked tirelessly to respond to the pandemic”.

“Once the severity and potential impact of the disease became clear, we formed a cross-divisional COVID task force in January 2020 comprising representatives from all our legal divisions,” said Mr Wong. 

“We anticipated that the Government would need urgent and cross- cutting legal advice and support to address a possible pandemic and its repercussions. This proved to be prescient. 

“In the first half of 2020 alone, we received more than 1,300 COVID-related requests for advice. Almost all of these were urgent – we responded to 69 per cent of these cases within 24 hours and 78 per cent within 48 hours. The pace and intensity of this work were unprecedented, and I am glad to say we came through for our clients.”

READ: Greater diversity in pathways to Singapore Bar among new ideas for legal education system: Chief Justice

AGC’S RESPONSE TO COVID-19

AGC’s contributions included working with its officers who were posted to satellite legal departments in various ministries, advising the Government on establishing quarantine facilities, securing borders and protecting trade flows, said Mr Wong.

“We also provided critical legal support on the tapping of past reserves to finance the various COVID response budgets, on the impact of COVID on Government contracts, and on negotiations for the procurement of possible COVID vaccines,” he said.

AGC also drafted major pieces of legislation in record time to allow the Government to “quickly implement new measures to control the spread of the disease, such as safe distancing measures and contingency healthcare arrangements” and introduce schemes for financial, tax and other reliefs to sustain the economy.

AGC worked closely with law enforcement agencies to enforce the Infectious Diseases Act and COVID-19 legislation strictly and swiftly, quickly dealing with breaches of quarantine orders, stay-home notices and other restrictions.

READ: Necessary for Singapore to fast-track COVID-19 laws amid unprecedented situation: Lawyers

“In addition to our COVID work, AGC kept the legal machinery of Government running in a very different operating environment,” said Mr Wong.

“Criminal prosecutions and urgent civil litigation matters continued during the circuit breaker period and beyond, but with many more remote hearings. Our officers adapted rapidly by learning how to present arguments and, in some cases, examine witnesses over Zoom. 

“Through countless Skype meetings and emails, we maintained our usual pace of drafting and providing advice and legal representation to the Government – including during the recent General Elections, which presented particular difficulties due to COVID restrictions. We had to urgently advise the Government on how to deal with the unique challenges and legal complexities involved in holding an election in the midst of a pandemic.”

Mr Wong said AGC will roll out digital innovations such as legal automation in the year ahead. AGC is currently developing a contract drafting application that will save public officers time spent on manually amending templates.

By the first quarter of 2021, it will launch the Legislation Code System, a computer-readable reference protocol for legislation tagging where every Act, section and subsection of the law will have a unique identifier code enabling enterprise searching across case databases, parliamentary reports, journal articles and press releases.

There are also plans to fully integrate the internal criminal case management systems with those at the enforcement agencies, the courts and prisons.

“I have been humbled and heartened to witness my officers coming together to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the entire public service, both to manage this unprecedented crisis and also to keep essential operations running in new and innovative ways,” said Mr Wong.

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