Taking the Role and Practice of Tribunals to the Next Level
Singapore, 26 April 2022 — The State Courts and the Singapore Academy of Law (“SAL”) jointly organised the inaugural Tribunals Conference with the aim to raise the standards and quality of tribunal practice. Themed Advancing Access to Justice Through a Quality Tribunals System, the two-day virtual conference was opened by The Honourable the Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and the Presiding Judge of the State Courts, Justice Vincent Hoong, today. The conference will feature international and local speakers from the judiciary and tribunals communities who will discuss issues pertaining to tribunals, and a possible vision for a quality, forward-looking, coordinated and networked system of tribunals.
Tribunals are integral to Singapore’s justice system, dealing with a substantial proportion of its caseload. Over the past three years, on average, the number of claims filed in the State Courts’ tribunals system has reached nearly two-thirds of that filed in its civil courts. In this period, over 34,000 claims were heard and disposed by the State Courts’ tribunals.
Unlike a court hearing, tribunal proceedings are conducted in a more informal manner with simplified, judge-led processes to manage and hear disputes between parties. Lower value contractual claims, neighbour conflicts over excessive noise, smell, smoke or light, and employment claims, are some of the common disputes heard by the tribunals in the State Courts. The parties involved, who are generally not represented by lawyers, prepare and present their own cases before the tribunal which will deal with the cases expeditiously and with the aim of achieving fair and practical outcomes through proportionate means.
Tribunals, which can go by many names – including boards, committees, commissions, also play an important role in determining matters requiring specialised knowledge and experience. For example, the Strata Titles Boards and Land Acquisition Appeals Board comprise architects, engineers and lawyers, and the Income Tax Board of Review counts several accountants and other tax specialists amongst its members.
This diversity reflects one of the tribunals system’s greatest strengths – the capacity for specialisation, which enables tribunals to play a specialist role which complements the more generalist courts. However, this diversity also challenges efficiency. Individual tribunals may lack the economies of scale that a single, unified system would enjoy. If stakeholder interests are diffused across separate tribunals, there may also not be a sufficiently strong driving force to examine the need for change.
The Tribunals Conference offers a view into how this balance between specialisation and coordination can be achieved, with speakers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom sharing best practices from those jurisdictions, where tribunal systems have developed over a longer period. Beyond this, the Conference also delves into issues of ethics, integrity and judicial accountability, and explores how technology can be leveraged to strengthen access to justice.
The Tribunals Conference is part of the ongoing work of the Community Courts and Tribunals Cluster of the State Courts to help promote the standards and best practices for a good Tribunal system anchored on the rule of law and due process. In 2019, judges from the State Courts authored The Law and Practice of Tribunals in Singapore, which explained the nature of tribunals and set out the basic laws and principles that should govern tribunal hearings. The book was published by Academy Publishing, SAL’s publishing arm.