E-litigation: The Singapore Experience

Moving with the times, the Supreme Court of Singapore advances into the next decade, armed with the latest in technology and techno-savvy lawyers to boot! Care to travel on an insightful journey through the past, present and future of the Supreme Court?

Technology has propelled the Supreme Court to the forefront of the information age. This is in line with Singapore's national computerisation programme that seeks to exploit the benefits of information technology ('IT') for its people. Under the dynamic and visionary leadership of the Honourable Chief Justice Yong Pung How, the Supreme Court has extensively and intensively embraced IT to enhance the delivery of justice and improve internal administration and operations. This process is marching on with an ever increasing momentum.

Advancements made in IT are so rapid that there is never an end to harnessing IT to improve on the conventional ways to conduct litigation. With all the persistent education and exposure to IT, there is now an acceptance by both the judiciary and the legal profession that unless we leverage on IT, we stand to lose our competitive edge. We are mindful at all times that the ever changing state-of-the-art technology can only be a tool in our administration of justice.

Whatever changes the future brings, we must always remember that justice must be assisted, not dominated, by technology. Technology alone does not improve the system. It is people, assisted by technology, who make the justice system work. We must be careful not to blindly substitute technology or become slaves of technology. [Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Technology Renaissance Courts Conference, 24 September 1996]

The Early Years of Computerisation in Supreme Court - The Dawn of a New Era
In the past, the courts stored information manually, using paper and filing cabinets. This system served its purpose for many years, but over time, its limitations became apparent. The sheer volume of documents to be stored, the increasing need for a more effective and efficient means of accessing information and the growing sophistication of the legal process meant that there was a need for computerisation to be introduced. One of the earliest efforts towards computerisation was the creation of the bankruptcy system. This system permitted faster and more accurate searches of large quantities of information on bankruptcy matters via computer.

It was not until 1988 that an integrated approach to the computerisation of the Supreme Court was adopted. This was achieved through the development of the Civil System in the early 1990s. It is a Main Frame system comprising numerous modules to register the different types of actions and applications. It contains salient litigation information, including parties' particulars, nature and quantum of claim, index of documents filed and hearing outcomes.
Endless stream of paper court
documents requiring endless
storage space

LawNet - The First Integrated Network of Legal Information Services
It was the civil system that facilitated the implementation of the litigation module in LawNet. LawNet,1 launched on 7 July 1990, offers a multitude of legal information via a single connection. The nation-wide computer network links parties in the legal sector together. It co-ordinates and integrates all these efforts and builds on them. It enables a higher degree of standardisation and creates a more 'user-friendly' environment. LawNet operates as a one-stop centre for various information repositories. Besides information on litigation, legal research on case law/legislation/parliamentary debates, registration of companies and businesses, intellectual property and conveyancing databases are all available from LawNet. Law firms can tap into the one-stop centre for information from their office desktop computers. In addition, the LawNet Service Bureau provides a convenient alternative for walk-in customers who are not LawNet subscribers.

The Supreme Court is a vital content provider for the litigation module in LawNet. Information is extracted from the various modules of the civil system. Users may choose to access data from a single module, such as a party search from the writ of summons, originating summons/motion/petition, admiralty, bankruptcy and company winding up or attempt a single composite search where the engine will run an inquiry across modules (except bankruptcy and company winding up). The composite search is convenient, fast and user friendly. Other information services that the Supreme Court makes available on LawNet include Court of Appeal and Magistrates' Appeal Hearing Results List, damages awarded in defamation cases, taxation of costs and damages for personal injuries and death cases.

In the years ahead, the courts will be making concerted efforts to maximise the potential of LawNet. The Supreme Court will gradually expand and increase the types of information services available in the 'litigation' and 'legal research' modules of LawNet, so as to assist lawyers in their research work. [Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Opening of the Legal Year 1998, 10 January 1998]

The Vision - A Paperless Litigation System
The push towards greater utilisation of IT was not just due to a shortage of storage space for the ever ballooning use of paper for court records. The concern was the very use of paper in litigation itself. It was common to see lawyers wheeling in cartons and cartons of paper documents to the horror of the presiding judge. It was a worrying trend. If nothing was done, it would get out of hand one day. It would have been very difficult (and it was) to embark on a mission to get lawyers and judges to reduce the use of paper. After all, the legal profession is still one of the most traditional professions in the world. It was, admittedly, an uphill task to sell the idea of 'e-litigation' to one and all.

Under the visionary leadership of Chief Justice Yong Pung How and assisted by the Registrar, Mr Chiam Boon Keng, the Supreme Court braced itself to realise the vision of a paperless litigation system. It was then clearly envisaged that to achieve the vision, court documents must be in electronic form. They must also be filed, processed, retrieved, served, extracted and stored electronically. To support the use of electronic documents in a court environment, technology courts and technology chambers would have to be constructed. With all these in mind, the action plan was very clear. The direction was to set up a technology court and allow litigation lawyers to be exposed and familiarised with the ways of e-litigation. Constructing a technology court would surely take less time than to complete an electronic filing system with a comprehensive and customised workflow system. With that, we proceeded to work on Singapore's first technology court.

Technology Court - A Revolutionary Advance
Our first technology court is housed in Court No 5. It was officially launched on 8 July 1995. It incorporates a wide variety of computer systems as well as the latest in audio-visual equipment. This courtroom features a computer network which allows access to information on the network at a click of the mouse. The network links the various computers within the courtroom and enables them to share online information. In addition, the system allows solicitors to prepare and present their own cases using tools, such as multimedia and imaging, to achieve a presentation of an integrated text, images, graphics, audio recording and data. The Technology Court is also equipped to provide a computer-based recording transcription facility which allows oral testimony to be digitally recorded. This facility allows a faster turnaround time for transcripts of evidence to be furnished. Taken together, these technologies provide a better way of presenting complex cases involving voluminous documents which are often difficult to manage and present.

Clearly, therefore, with the Technology Court, our courtrooms have come a long way from the day when most things had to be done manually, from the tendering of exhibits to the recording of court proceedings by verbatim reporters. The objective in all this has been to ensure that the administration of justice is made not just speedier but more efficacious or, if you like, more user friendly. [Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Launch of Technology Court, 8 July 1995]
Technology Court No 1

The availability of video-conferencing facilities in the technology court has made it so convenient for foreign witnesses to give evidence in court without having to be physically present. Much time and costs have been saved through the use of video conferencing in the technology court. The technology court's first video conferencing connection was in September 1995 with Las Vegas, USA, in a civil suit. Since then, many successful video conferencing connections have been arranged all over the world2 to receive evidence in the Technology Court.

Apart from civil proceedings, the video conferencing facility has proved extremely useful in criminal trials for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence in a less unpleasant environment. Arrangements have been made in many instances for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence and be cross-examined from a remote location with the help of video conferencing.

With the installation of the Technology Court, our Singapore courts are taking bold strides into the courtroom of the future. Information technology is a tool that cannot be ignored in the context of the information age; and it is encouraging, surely, to see how its manifold uses have been harnessed to serve the ends of justice. Depending on usage and the experience gained, more technology courts will be progressively constructed both in the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts. [Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Launch of Technology Court, 8 July 1995]

More Technology Courts with Better and More Advanced Features
Following the success of the first technology court in Court No 5 of the Supreme Court building, the conception of a second technology court was inevitable. Building on the feedback received from the bench and the bar, the progeny of the first technology court was christened. Technology Court 2, housed in Court No 3, harnesses the latest advances in technology to provide counsel and parties with even more options in the presentation of their cases.

Like its predecessor, Technology Court 2 has a video-conferencing system which allows evidence to be received from overseas witnesses. A witness room situated behind the courtroom allows vulnerable witnesses to give evidence without having to face the accused person in open court. The witness room is further equipped with a stand-alone video conferencing set which can be used independently from the system in the courtroom. Should the need arise, video conferencing can take place in other courtrooms as well as in chambers. In order for the witness to follow proceedings in the courtroom, the witness room is equipped with a plasma display panel capable of displaying images from four sources. With the use of a visualiser, the witness can be cross-examined on documents and exhibits. Should the technological facilities not be required, the witness room also doubles up as a holding room for witnesses.

In addition to being fully equipped to conduct hearings of cases where documents are electronically filed under the Electronic Filing System, Technology Court 2 is equipped with a whole array of audio-visual equipment for the presentation of evidence and arguments. Evidence stored in video cassettes, digital video discs and video compact discs can be played back and viewed on the various screens in the courtroom. By connecting their notebook computers to the audio-visual system in the courtroom, counsel can now incorporate multimedia animations or three-dimensional graphics into the presentation of technically complex cases. Telephone points are also provided for the counsel to dial-up their office servers or connect to the internet to access online legislation and case law databases.

Giving evidence is now made easier by the use of a video marker system. This allows the judge, counsel and witnesses to annotate, each in a different colour, any image displayed on the screen. Witnesses will no longer have to mark repetitively on all the paper copies of the judge, counsel and witness. The annotations can then be printed or recorded for future reference. Oral testimony in Technology Court 2 can be recorded via a digital recording system. Proceedings in court can also be captured via a video recording system. This records a maximum of eight images from the video and document cameras in the courtroom, as well as images received via video conferencing. Besides archival purposes, the judge will be able to play back the court session to review the evidence.

The various equipment in the courtroom: the cameras, the visualisers, the playback and recording systems, are centrally controlled by the court officer with the use of a colour touch-screen panel. With a simple touch, the court officer is able to control the audio and lighting level in the courtroom as well as preview images before projection. Telephone or video conferencing can also be activated.
Technology Court No 2

Since its opening, Technology Court 2 has been showcased to the Bar, State Counsel as well as members of the public. The use of the latest technologies in Technology Court 2 challenges its users to adopt new and untraditional ways of conducting litigation. It is yet another step in the judiciary's bold vision of achieving a paperless litigation system.

The Switch from Paper to Electronic Documents ('E-docs')
'Paper' is very sacrosanct to lawyers. They just cannot do without it. You will easily appreciate that it is very difficult to convince lawyers to switch from paper to digital documents. Unpopular as it was, the judiciary had to take the initiative. The initiatives of e-litigation would be a great failure if lawyers do not change their mindset and switch from the use of paper to e-docs. The process of educating the legal profession to use e-docs was a necessary precursor to the Electronic Filing System.

As early as 1996, we convinced some IT savvy lawyers to try out using e-docs in the Technology Court for both criminal and civil trials. It was a success. On 17 August 1998, after many months of preparation, the use of e-docs was extended to all appeals heard in the Court of Appeal and in Magistrates' Appeals (presided by the Chief Justice). By then, we had retrofitted the Court of Appeal and Court No 1 with raised flooring to run cables and wires, flat screen monitors on rotatable arms, video switching devices and custom-made lecterns to make the courtrooms e-docs capable.

The Supreme Court Registry supported the legal profession by converting the paper documents into Portable Document Format ('PDF'), bookmarking and hyperlinking them, holding briefings, demonstrations and personalised hands-on sessions, cutting free CD-ROMs for lawyers' individualised training and attaching a court officer at the hearing to guide lawyers in the use of e-docs or to troubleshoot when a glitch arises. In October 1999, we extended the use of e-docs to all criminal trials and selected civil trials. This was made possible when all the courtrooms and chambers in the Supreme Court Building were fully equipped to support the use of e-docs.

In all honesty, while not all judges and lawyers would have preferred electronic to paper documents, they gradually grew accustomed to handling e-docs. They also gradually overcame the fear of accessing, reading, annotating and retrieving e-docs in readiness for the implementation of the Electronic Filing System ('EFS'), our key IT initiative. These concerted steps have to be taken in preparation for the eventual implementation of the EFS when all hearings, including appeals, would be conducted in an electronic environment.

Having regard to the benefits which information technology can bring to court proceedings, I foresee that in time the Court of Appeal will be able to forsake its traditional practice of relying on countless bundles of paper ... . [Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Opening of the Legal Year 1998, 10 January 1998]

The EFS - Litigation System par Excellence
The EFS3 is, to date, our largest investment in a single IT project spanning over the longest time of implementation and involving the most number of IT consultants and user representatives. That prospect itself, did not and will not, deter us from pressing on with the full implementation of the project. The plan is to fully complete the implementation of the project by the end of 2002/2003. Without EFS, our vision of a paperless litigation system will not be realised. The EFS is probably the only comprehensive e-litigation system in the world that allows court documents to be prepared and filed electronically, processed for acceptance or rejection by the court Registry, stored, retrieved and updated for hearing, as well as to obtain electronic extracts of court documents and for court documents to be electronically served between law firms via a single revolutionary system. While many courts have electronic filing in place, most if not all of these systems do not have as comprehensive a workflow system as the EFS. It is a system in which we take immense pride, notwithstanding the teething problems encountered in its development.

Under the direction of the Chief Justice and the Registrar, we embarked on our long and arduous journey in the early 1990s to see the dream of a paperless litigation system turning into a reality - a comprehensive and unparalleled e-filing system equipping the legal profession to face greater challenges in the 21st century. EFS is a joint project with the judiciary, the Singapore Network Services Pte Ltd (sole vendor) and the Singapore Academy of Law. We also work very closely with the Law Society of Singapore and the Attorney General's Chambers so as to ensure that the law firm's module is designed by the lawyers for the lawyers.

EFS Main Menu as seen in the law firm's system

The EFS will be gradually implemented in the next few years to cover all types of civil proceedings. The four main services to be provided by the EFS are as follows:

Phase 1.0 was implemented on 8 March 1997 as a pilot programme to allow lawyers to experience the advantages of filing documents electronically and to identify the problems that might arise from filing documents in this manner so that these problems might be addressed and resolved. This was implemented on a voluntary basis and only a limited range of documents emanating from a writ of summons could be filed.

Phase 1.2 of the EFS was implemented on 1 March 2000. This involved establishing a private, nation-wide network linking the law firms with the courts. To authenticate lawyers and other users, an independent certifying authority was set up within the Supreme Court Registry, which continues to be operated and managed by the Registry till today. Use of the Public Key Infrastructure ('PKI') was adopted to enable lawyers to transact with the courts in a secure environment. Under this Phase, mandatory electronic filing of court documents to the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts was introduced. The launch of this phase facilitated the filing of almost every type of document emanating from a writ of summons, including appeals from the Registrar. With mandatory electronic filing, court documents that fall within the scope of Phase 1.2 may no longer be filed in court in paper form. Law firms and users who are not EFS equipped may use one of the Service Bureau conveniently located either in or within the vicinity of the courthouse to assist them to file court documents electronically.

Phase 2 was launched on 2 July 2001. Besides rolling out the extract service and service of document facility on the EFS, the implementation of this Phase witnessed the migration of the EFS from a Windows-based client server system on a private EDI network to a Web application running on the internet. The switch to the latter will facilitate global access and ease of installation and maintenance. With the launch of Phase 2 on 2 July 2001, all four services of the EFS are in operation, ie filing, extract, service of document and electronic information services. It was a significant moment as the project team worked tirelessly to see the implementation of all four types of services.

As for Phases 3 and 4, the plan is to cover all the remaining types of matters filed in court. Phase 3 will include appeals from the District Court, appeals to the Court of Appeal, taxation of costs, originating summons and interpleader summons. Phase 4 will cover originating motion/petition, petition of course, probate, admiralty, powers of attorney and family matters. Phase 5 is an internal migration exercise to port our Main Frame civil system to the EFS platform. The plan is to extend EFS to criminal matters, including appeals, under a new Phase 6. By then, EFS would have extensively and comprehensively covered all civil and criminal litigation matters in the Supreme Court.

The EFS is specifically designed to fully exploit the electronic super highway to minimise not just the physical movement of people and paper court documents, but also to minimise the expensive use of storage space. The main objectives of EFS are as follows:

With the EFS, the Singapore judiciary is at the doorstep of realising a paperless court system where lawyers can prepare, file, extract, serve and receive documents electronically. An unlimited number of e-docs may also be stored digitally, thus taking up very little physical storage space. Copies of digital documents can be easily inspected and electronic extracts thereof made available to lawyers in the comfort of their own offices. Litigation searches on the courts' databases and legal research are also available via LawNet from the lawyer's desktop. You may be interested to know that since August 2001, lawyers can even obtain details of hearing fixtures via the Short Messaging Service ('SMS') using their mobile phones instead of making telephone inquiries with the Supreme Court Registry or surfing the Supreme Court website. Hearings in court do not require paper files as judges and lawyers access the e-docs from the EFS. You will also be interested to know that all judges of the Supreme Court can now access, from home, court documents filed via EFS from their personal notebook. The remote access to the EFS and other court databases facilitates judges' preparation and research for trials and the writing of judgments in the convenience of their homes. All these were what we had dreamt of not too long ago. With the EFS, we now see it all in action.

Together with our other computerisation ventures, the EFS will ensure that our civil litigation system is moulded into a coherent and well-oiled machine. It will effect a fundamental change in the services offered to the public by the Judiciary and alter completely the manner in which advocates do legal research, draft and file papers and conduct trials in the courtroom. [Chief Justice Yong Pung How, Launch of the EFS, 8 March 1997]

The New Supreme Court Building - An Encapsulation of Excellence in Judicial Administration
The building committee is now in its final stages of planning and designing a timeless and stately architectural masterpiece befitting of the highest court of the land. The vision is to create a new courthouse that will enable the Supreme Court to take on the increasing challenges expected in the next millennium and to further enhance our quality service to the public. State-of-the-art technology will feature strongly in this new complex.

When completed, this superior court of the land will incorporate: (a) more extensive wireless facilities throughout the courthouse; (b) a multimedia recording system which allows for the recording of court proceedings by way of a digital video recording system to produce a three-tier audio, visual and textual record of proceedings; (c) infrastructure and technologies to support real time transcription of notes of evidence of court proceedings; (d) fully interactive information kiosks, video walls and TV monitors at public areas to provide easy access to information; (e) high speed network for broadband/video-streaming applications; (f) extension of video-conferencing facilities to the desktop; (g) mobile commerce infrastructure to support mobile information services and mobile transactions; (h) new business applications like data warehouse of case repositories with data mining capabilities and other intelligent systems; (i) electronic presentation facilities in courtrooms and conference rooms; and (j) an environmentally-friendly building management system with state-of-the-art and user-friendly security features.

A computer generated impression
of the Supreme Court @ 2005

What will Tomorrow be - From 'E-court' to 'V-court'?
The use of courtroom technology has advanced so rapidly in the last ten years. It can only get faster. With the internet explosion, several jurisdictions have been working on the idea of cyber court or 'v-court' (virtual court). Exactly what shape it is going to take and how it is going to operate, your guess will be as good as mine. But there is one thing we know - cyber court may be the way to go. The world is now a global village with rapidly increasing cross-border transactions. Litigation is not going to make sense if witnesses have to travel tens of thousands of kilometres.

As time is of the essence, we envisage that high-quality video conferencing will be heavily used in court proceedings. There will be more international players in the courtroom. Judges, lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses, accused and even escorts could be from different parts of the world. They may all converge in cyberspace on an assigned portal.4 There will be many domestic legal issues and international protocols to be addressed. But all these will not impede the march of technology. Whether the concept of cyber court or 'v-Court' will eventually take-off remains to be seen.

With state-of-the-art computerisation in the Supreme Court, the legal profession is well placed to offer more competitive services, especially in litigation involving cross-border transactions. Together with the technology courts, the services provided by the EFS and LawNet will bring about a convergence of cutting-edge technologies to facilitate e-litigation in every sense of the word. All these translate into the saving of precious time and reduction of litigation costs. With all these electronic services conveniently available from the office desktop, or even from home, lawyers can accomplish far more than what they previously could.

While the Supreme Court5 is pivotal in successfully shifting the mindset of the legal profession from one of technology sceptic to technology harvester to deliver better professional services, one thing remains the same: our strong commitment to fairness and justice.6

Tan Boon Heng
Supreme Court, Singapore

1  The LawNet Council consists of the Honourable Chief Justice as Chairman, the Minister of Law, the Honourable Attorney General, the President of the Law Society of Singapore and the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore as members. The LawNet Secretariat is managed by the Singapore Academy of Law, see www.lawnet.com.sg.
2  The following countries have had successful video conferencing connections with Singapore: the USA, the UK, Switzerland, HKSAR, Holland, Australia, Belgium, Italy, Reunion Islands via Paris and Japan.
3 www.efs.com.sg.
4  Video conferencing via subscription to an Application Service Provider on the internet is available - for more details, see www.ivcc.com.sg.
5 The Supreme Court is grateful to have dedicated and capable inhouse support from the Computer Information Systems Department and the involvement of very committed vendors. Without them, it would not have been possible for the Supreme Court to make such tremendous and remarkable progress in the use of IT to better serve the courts and the legal profession.
6  For more information on the Supreme Court, see www.supcourt.com.sg.