Reducing the Backlog: Lessons learnt from the Singaporean Courts

                                                                                         Lee Kwang Chian

Introduction

It is an inescapable truth that formalized systems of dispute resolution are always fraught with delays, and that these delays interfere significantly with the administration of justice. For example, in civil proceedings, a simple action for recovery of unpaid alimony might takes years before the case is heard in court, causing undue hardship for the divorcee. This situation is further exacerbated in criminal proceedings, where an incarcerated defendant might remain indefinitely imprisoned while awaiting trial.

The immortal words that “Justice delayed is justice denied” by Sir William Gladstone rings with as much truth today as it did 100 years ago. In late 2018, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi stated that one of the main issues “troubling me [is the] pendency of cases, which brings in a lot of disrepute to courts.”[1] The current backlog in the Indian courts has reached an alarming height, with over 34 million cases pending in the courts, and 23 million cases pending for over a year.[2] Indeed, the backlog of cases is not a new problem in India; former Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra,  famously wrote a letter to all high court chief justices to focus on reducing the court backlog.[3]

This situation is reminiscent of Singapore in the 1990s, where the backlog of cases was harshly criticised by the Singaporean Chief Justice of that time as “large and embarrassing”[4]. However, in 20 short years, the Singapore court system is now deemed as one of the most efficient court systems in the world[5] and lauded for “its efficiency, its technological sophistication, its accessibility and the confidence of Singapore’s citizens and businesses in the system.”[6]  This was achieved through a host of “facilitative, diversionary, monitoring and control, and dispositive measures”,[7] aimed at eliminating “court congestion and excessive delay in the resolution of [cases].”[8]

This author submits that the Singaporean model is one that can be easily transposed to the Indian System, allowing the Indian courts to clear the backlog, while ensuring that justice is not overlooked. This paper will focus on the solutions that the Singapore courts undertook to reduce the backlog of cases and determine their applicability to the Indian system.

Facilitative Measures

Facilitative measures are reforms meant to facilitate the disposition of cases by, inter alia, streamlining certain court processes or allocating further resources to case management. Essentially, facilitative measures are used to strengthen the “supporting infrastructure” for disposing of cases.[9]

In the 1990s, Chief Justice Yong Pung How laid down a series of housekeeping rules to ensure strict compliance to procedural and case management rules. As will be discussed below, these “infrastructural” measures can be easily applied to the Indian court process.

Reviewing Processes and Systems

Time Management

Singapore has implemented 2 major time-management policies:

  1. No adjournment without compelling reasons: a strict no-adjournment policy unless there are compelling reasons. Even if an adjournment is granted, the Registrar shall assign new dates based on the court’s schedule, and “counsel will be expected to take the dates at short notice.”[10] Furthermore, penalties (in the form of costs awards or worse) are also handed out if counsels are late to their appointed court timings.
  2. Creation of Night Courts[11]: The night courts were created in 1992 for the convenience of the public, who would otherwise find it difficult to attend court due to work commitments (which would increase the delay before the case is heard in court).

Applicability for India

It is noted that these policies seem to be individually inconsequential, but their overall benefit cannot be disputed. For the Indian Courts, on a nationwide scale, the issue with punctuality cannot be overlooked, as millions of man-hours will be wasted due to tardiness or frivolous adjournments by counsel. Poor time management is also compounded by the fact that rural districts may require lengthy travel to the nearest court; a constantly shifting or delayed trial makes it difficult for rural villagers or parties to seek redress.

Although the Gram Nyayalayas Act[12] seeks to mitigate this issue by creating village courts in rural areas, the inefficiencies with the court systems may discourage parties from seeking justice in the courts. In contrast, the Singapore system will ensure that all cases are speedily resolved in court.

Pre-Trial Filing/Docket System & Pre-Trial Conferences

Unlike other jurisdictions, Singapore employs a unique “selective docket system” where cases are identified by categories. During the docketing process, a case is assigned to a judge with experience and expertise in that specialist area of law.[13] The assignment is the result of a considered decision as opposed to random allocation.[14] This ensures that the assigned judge will have prior expertise in the field and wouldn’t need to be guided through the complexities inherent in the specific area of law. Furthermore, as one assigned judge/registrar hears all the applications on the case, the need for clarifications and cross-referencing is reduced.     

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In a similar vein, pre-trial filings and pre-trial conferences allow judges to familiarise themselves with the case before the proper trial. Singapore’s adoption of Pre-Trial conferences prior to trial allowed for case management to begin at an early stage of the trial process[15] , ensuring that the trial can be conducted more efficiently. For example, oral evidence must be filed in the form of written affidavits, and opening statements must be filed prior to trial, ensuring efficiency during the trial process.

Applicability for India

Although the Law Commission of India has previously rejected Pre-Trial Conferences (PTC)[16], the Indian courts seem to have adopted a quasi-PTC system. In Ramrameshwari Devi v Nirmala Devi[17], the Supreme Court recommended certain steps that trial courts should follow to improve the administration of the case, such as “carefully scrutinizing the pleadings and documents filed by parties immediately after the filing of civil suits; resorting to the discovery and production of documents and interrogatories at the earliest; and preparing a complete time schedule for all the stages of the suit and strictly adhering to the said dates as far as possible.”[18]

Therefore, it is likely that the courts will be amenable to allowing compulsory Pre-Trial conferences prior to trial, which would ensure that cases are filed and pursued in a timely and organized manner.

Case Management

Singapore employs the Differentiated Case Management model (“DCM”). The DCM model recognises that different “cases differ substantially in the time required for a fair and timely disposition” and hence, should be subject to different “processing requirements”.[19]

This differentiated model understands that some cases are straightforward and require little oversight, whereas certain cases may require the court to supervise the pre-trial process more extensively.[20]The DCM model deals with these issues by ensuring there are “multiple tracks or paths for case disposition, with differing procedural requirements and timeframes geared to the processing requirements of the cases that will be assigned to that track”.[21]

Applicability to India

The DCM model can be readily applied to the Indian courts, allowing the courts to set different timeframes and procedures for the disposition of cases depending on the complexity of the case. This allows the court to adopt a tailored approach based on the case it encounters, as opposed to a ‘one-size fits all’ approach that may lead to inefficiency or injustice.

Reorganizing Judicial Resources

In dealing with a backlog of cases, it is inevitable that judicial resources would need to be shifted and expanded to encompass the ever-increasing amount of cases. In Singapore’s case, this reorganization was achieved in several ways; an increase in the amount of judicial and support staff and an expansion of the roles that the judiciary could undertake.

Table: Increase in Judicial Officers/Registrars from 1990 to 2000[22]:

YearSupreme Court JudgeSupreme Court Judicial CommissionerSupreme Court RegistrarSubordinate Court District JudgeSubordinate Court MagistrateSubordinate Court RegistrarSmall Claims TribunalTotal
1990921322152265
19911151222172271
199211101323192280
19931091436223296
199413741535174290
19951441433153285
19961451538163293
1997146164418133114
199814614521634109
19998146155411559110
200011715551443109
Change from 1990 to 2000.+2+5+2+33-1+2+144

The Justice Law Clerks Scheme[23] was also introduced in 1991, recruiting top law graduates for legal research and to aid the court, allowing judges to focus on delivering quality judgements in an expedient manner. Furthermore, the powers of the lower court judges were also expanded, with Quasi-judicial tribunals being presided over by district judges (e.g. Copyright Tribunal, Income Tax Board), while more administrative tasks (such as Bankruptcy applications and Summonses for directions) could be heard by the Registrar and his deputies.

Additionally, the Case Management Officer Scheme was introduced in 2011 to increase the administrative efficiency and strength of the judicial support staff. This scheme ensures that administrative officers in the court, or case management officers, handle all matters relating to the cases assigned to them, till the matter is disposed of in court.[24] Case Management Officers are able to provide better service to the public because they are familiar with the overall progress of the specific case, akin to the one-judge one-docket system mentioned above.[25]

Applicability for India

These measures will serve to free up the higher courts to pursue cases with more complex issues, while diverting or disposing of simpler cases in the lower courts or tribunals. Given that there is a 30 million case backlog in the courts, the authority of judicial officers (especially at the lower courts) must be expanded to deal with the simpler issues that arise in the courts. Similarly, the village court systems can be expanded to deal with more issues, with trained magistrates (who may not necessarily be judicially trained) to handle routine cases, while legally-trained judicial officers are reserved to handle more complex issues.

Technology is one of the greatest weapons that India can harness to increase the efficiency of the Courts. Indeed, given India’s geographical size, it is incumbent on the Judiciary to harness technology to facilitate the movement of cases through the court process. Even Singapore, a small city-state, relies heavily on technological improvements to reduce the caseload of its judiciary.

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Disposing of Minor Offences

In Singapore, minor fines or traffic offences can be dealt with through the Automated Traffic Offence Management Systems (ATOMS)[26], through any AXS stations (computer terminals that are conveniently located throughout the Country) or online.[27]  This frees up the court to deal with more important cases, while allowing citizens the convenience of dealing with such minor cases at their leisure.

Electronic Filing System/eLitigation

In 2000, the Electronic Filing System was officially launched, allowing law firms to electronically file documents in court at any time of the day without having to attend at the Registry in person. The eLitigation system, developed in 2013, built upon this system. Once users enter information regarding a case into the system, such information can be extracted and used (whether automatically or otherwise) at various stages of the workflow.[28] This “cradle-to-grave” system of case management ensures that case information needs to be entered into the system only once, and the relevant information can be extracted automatically to populate various fields as required, reducing the administrative work required by the courts.

Applicability for India

For a country like India, with its geographical size, it is difficult to require documents (or case filing) to be done in-person. The presence of a robust online “cradle-to-grave” filing system will drastically reduce the amount of administrative inefficiencies in the Indian system. Indeed, it may be near impossible for India’s courts to handle the mass-filing of court documents if hardcopy documents are required to be submitted to the courts.

Diversionary Measures

Diversionary measures are measures that divert disputes from the court litigation process. Generally, this is achieved through the use of, inter alia, alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) procedures.[29] In Singapore, both arbitration and mediation have been readily embraced by the Singapore courts as an integral part of the alternative dispute resolution process.

Indeed, the Singapore Government is a strong proponent of ADR, and has modified the Rules of Court[30] to provide ample opportunity for ADR even within the litigation setting. For instance, litigants or their legal representatives may apply either to the Courts or the Singapore Mediation Centre for matters to be referred to mediation. Furthermore, as part of the national effort to foster a mediation culture, the Community Mediation Centres Act[31] was also enacted in 1997 to increase the use of mediation in the communal context, especially in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore.

Additionally, government approved bodies such as the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (established in 1991) and the Singapore Mediation Centre (established in 1997) ensure that the ADR process is formalized and accepted by practitioners, who may be bound by law to undergo ADR processes before embarking on the litigation route (such as compulsory divorce mediation)[32].

Applicability for India

Currently, there is increasing acceptance of ADR in India, with several ADR bodies sprouting up in recent years. Indeed, in 2018, the Indian government passed the Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts (Amendment) Bill 2018, which mandates for mediation in certain circumstances (section 12A).

Given the cultural and racial differences inherent in India (similar to Singapore), ADR processes may be preferable to the court or the village court processes, which would not account for such inherent differences. While village courts may be more in tune with the cultural differences of the parties (given their proximity to the case), ADR is more focused on reconciliation, which would be important for a close-knit community like a village, while also ensuring that neither party feels aggrieved from the decision rendered by their peers (or elders).

Dispositive Mechanisms

An important measure of the Singapore court regime is the enforcement of the concept of “automatic discontinuance”. The automatic discontinuance regime requires that all cases are filed and pursued in a timely manner, or they will be automatically disposed of after a period of dormancy. The Singapore Rules of Court provide that if no step or proceeding has been taken in any action, cause or matter for more than a year, the action, cause or matter will be deemed to have been discontinued.[33]

Applicability to India

Before automatic discontinuance was introduced in Singapore, cases could remain in the court system for decades, without any action being taken with regard to the cases. Defendants in such cases would be left with claims hanging over their heads for lengthy periods of time, while claimants could choose to pursue cases at their own leisure (as long as they were not time barred by the Limitations Act)[34].

Similarly, applying automatic discontinuance in the Indian court system will ensure that claimants are the ones who bear the burden of moving their cases forward in an expeditious manner; and not be allowed to waive a sword over the heads of the defendant(s) indefinitely. This will also ensure that claimants are incentivized to complete any proceedings quickly, as opposed to creating huge delays between actions/trial dates.

Monitoring & Control Mechanisms

Of course, improvements must be measurable in order to gauge if one’s actions have been successful. For Singapore, the improvements are benchmarked against three key performance indicators – the lifespan of cases, clearance rates and waiting periods.[35]

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Lifespan of Cases

Evidently, it is important that cases do not remain in the court system for an extended period of time. To combat the length of time before a case is disposed, the Singapore Supreme Court has set itself the target of disposing of 85% of all writ actions within 18 months of filing. This allows the court to have some leeway when dealing with cases that are complex, while ensuring that most cases do not fester within the court system for an extended period of time.

Clearance Rates

Another important indicator is the clearance rate in the courts (number of cases filed versus the number of cases disposed of within a year). This has been likened to an input/output flow of cases in the judicial system; given the business background of then CJ Yong Pung How, it is clear to see why such KPIs were adopted (as he saw efficiency in the courts as akin to a business). The clearance rates are a method to prevent an increasing backlog, as they provide an indication of whether the overall number of cases are declining. The clearance rates also provide a ready analysis of the general length of different types of cases. For example, if shipping and maritime cases always take a lengthy amount of time, these types of cases can be sent for special case management or more judicial officers and administrative staff may be assigned to dispose of such cases.[36]

Waiting Periods

Finally, the waiting period between the commencement of the trial and the hearing of applications or other proceedings must be reduced. The Singapore Supreme Court tries to ensure that their “service timelines” (the waiting periods between trials/applications) are as close as possible. For example, the Singapore courts try to have a trial fixed for hearing within eight weeks from the date of setting down.

Applicability for India

There is no reason why the Indian courts will not be able to set themselves similar targets in terms of the 3 major KPIs, especially if they have followed the suggested improvements to their facilitative and diversionary measures. This is especially important given that the KPIs are the best gauge of administrative and procedural efficiency. For the Indian courts, such KPIs could be a launching point to measure the effectiveness of the court process in dealing with the backlog of cases and allow the courts to hone in on issues that may affect the effectiveness of such measures.

Conclusion

The Indian legal system is at a tipping point. Although there is a large backlog of cases in the court system, it is also an opportunity for the courts to streamline their operations and increase their focus on diversionary measures such as ADR. Given India’s size and geographical location, and its importance in the world field, if the Indian Courts continue to focus on reducing the backlog of cases, this author firmly believes that the Indian Courts can become a model of efficiency in the Asian region.


[1] Ranjan Gogoi, Role of Bar and Bench in Social Engineering, (September 2018).

[2] District and Taluka Courts, (November 19, 2019), http://njdg.ecourts.gov.in/njdgnew/?p=main/index; High Courts (November 19, 2019), http://njdg.ecourts.gov.in/hcnjdg_public/main.php.

[3]Harish V Nair, 3.3 crore backlog cases in courts, pendency figure at highest, India Today (November 19, 2019) https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/3-3-crore-backlog-cases-in-courts-pendency-figure-at-highest-cji-dipak-misra-1271752-2018-06-28.

[4] Serene Lim, CJ Yong sets new direction for judiciary, The Straits Times, (October 17, 1990) at 28.

[5] Singapore is ranked 13th on the World Justice Project: Rule of Law Index 2019; Singapore is also ranked 5th and 6th respectively for Criminal Justice and Civil Justice, (5th April 2019),    https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/WJP-ROLI-2019-Single%20Page%20View-Reduced_0.pdf

[6] Waleed Haider Malik, Judiciary-Led Reforms in Singapore: Framework, Strategies and Lessons, World Bank 1, (2007).

[7] Chan Sek Keong, Pursuing Efficiency and Achieving Court Excellence – The Singapore Experience, The 14th Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific (2011).

[8] Fern M. Smith, Case Management, The International Conference on ADR and Case Management (2003) http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/adr_conf/FERN%20SMITH%20-%20%20CASE%20MANAGEMENT7.pdf

[9] Justice Judith Prakash, Making the Civil Litigation System more efficient, Asia Pacific Judicial Reform Forum Round Table Meeting in Singapore, (January 21, 2009).

[10] Supreme Court Practice Directions, section 67-68.

[11] Night Courts were created by the Courts to allow parties to resolve their cases without needing to absent themselves from work, (November 19, 2019), https://www.statecourts.gov.sg/cws/CriminalCase/Documents/Night%20Courts.pdf.

[12] Gram Nyayalayas Act, 2008.

[13] Chee Hock Foo, Eunice Chua and Louis Ng, Civil case management in Singapore: Of models, measures and justice, ASEAN Law Journal, 1-34 (2014).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Law Commission of India, Fourteenth Report, Reforms of the judicial administration.

[17] Ramrameshwari Devi v. Nirmala Devi (2011) 8 S.C.C 249.

[18] Judicial Process, (November 19, 2019), http://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/JUDICIAL-PROCESSES.pdf.

[19] Sackville AO, The future of case management in litigation, 18 JJA 211, 213 (2009).

[20] Supra, n 13.     

[21] Caroline Cooper, Maureen Solomon, and Holly Bakke, Differentiated Case Management: Implementation Manual 21 Washington, D.C: American University, 1 (1993).

[22] Whalen-Bridge H, Court Backlogs: Balancing Efficiency and Justice in Singapore, 7 Oñati Socio-legal Series 4, 879-894 (2017).

[23] Law Clerk recruitment, (April 6, 2019), https://www.lsc.gov.sg/careers/who-are-we-looking-for/graduates-mid-career.

[24]Chan Sek Keong, Pursuing Efficiency and Achieving Court Excellence – The Singapore Experience, 14th Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific in Seoul, South Korea (12-16 June 2011).

[25] Id, Pre-Trial Filing/Docket System.

[26] Payment of Court Fines, (April 6, 2019), https://www.statecourts.gov.sg/cws/CriminalCase/Pages/Payment%20of%20Court%20Fines.aspx.

[27] For example, the Singapore Land Transport Authority’s Onemotoring website, where traffic and motor-vehicle based fines can be paid online.

[28] Supra, n 13.

[29] Supra, n 13.

[30] Rules of Court Cap 322, 1999 Rev Ed, Rule 5.

[31] Community Mediation Centres Act, Cap 49A, 1998 Rev Ed.

[32] Women’s Charter Cap 353, 2009 Rev Ed.

[33] Supra n 30, O. 21, r. 2(6).

[34] Limitations Act, Cap 163, Rev Ed 1996.

[35] Supra, n 13.

[36] Justice Judith Prakash, Making the Civil Litigation System more efficient, Asia Pacific Judicial Reform Forum Round Table Meeting in Singapore, Singapore 7, (January 21, 2009).