Civil litigation refers to legal action in a court of law to resolve disputes between individuals or companies. It does not involve the state. The party who initiates the action is called the plaintiff or the complainant. The defending party is called the defendant. Civil matters include divorce proceedings, employment disputes, sale of goods or services, to complex disputes over estates. It could also include a non-contentious issue like applying for a grant of probate.
Do You Need a Lawyer for Civil Litigation?
The short answer is no. Any person facing a civil lawsuit has the right to defend or pursue the matter by representing themselves in court. You can choose to be represented by a lawyer or to conduct your own case.
Should I Represent Myself?
This is not an easy question to answer, and you should carefully consider your position before deciding to defend yourself. Before deciding, you should understand the process and the consequences of defending yourself.
The Civil Litigation Process
The rules of court govern civil procedure in Singapore. If you decide to act in person, i.e., defend yourself, the court will hold you to the same standards that lawyers must follow. You are expected to act on the same standards in preparing and conducting your case. You must comply with all the relevant laws and procedures. You should also consider that the court will not re-litigate the case once it is decided.
Let’s consider what is expected of you if you act in person.
Civil proceedings usually start with a writ of summons or an originating summons. If the dispute is a matter of law or interpretation of a document with no substantial dispute, the action should start with an originating summons. If it is a dispute of fact between parties, you will issue a writ of summons. The plaintiff must file a memorandum of service. Failure to do so can be critical if you later wish to apply for a default judgement.
If you wish to defend the case, you must inform the court and the plaintiff of your intention to do so. You must file a memorandum of appearance within a specific time. You must also file your defence with the court and deliver a copy to the plaintiff or his lawyer.
If you fail to file or serve the memorandum of appearance or your defence, judgment may be entered against you in your absence. This is called a default judgment. You also need to file a statement of claim. This must be accurate. If you miss certain particulars or your claim is vague, the court may dismiss your case.
During the pre-trial stage, you must comply with the requirements set out in the rules of court. It involves exchanging documents with the other party, gathering evidence to prepare your case, preparing, and exchanging witness statements, etc. Each step must comply with time limits. If you make a mistake in these documents, called pleadings, you may be able to amend it once without the court’s permission. After the close of pleadings, you will need the court’s permission to change the pleadings if you discover later that you made a mistake. Consulting with a civil litigation lawyer will help you follow the correct process and include accurate information in your pleadings.
You may also need to file or answer interlocutory applications. Interlocutory applications are complex procedures involving summons and supporting affidavits. You may need an order to compel a party to disclose documents in their possession. Suppose there is a risk that a party may deplete assets to avoid the risk of having to use those assets to satisfy the court’s judgment. In that case, you may want to file for a Mareva injunction. Failure to prepare and file, or answer to, interlocutory applications correctly, and on time, may have significant consequences for the outcome of your case.
Once all the pre-trial matters are concluded, the case will be set down for trial. By now, you must have exchanged all your affidavits of evidence-in-chief and all documentary evidence supporting your case. If you’ve missed something or failed to disclose something to the other party, you may not be allowed to rely on such evidence during the trial.
Whilst preparing for your trial, you must consider that the other party may be represented by experienced civil litigation lawyers who understand all the rules and procedures. They know precisely how to apply them in the best interest of their client. Civil litigation is a complex process. Making mistakes can be very expensive. Defending yourself may end up being more costly than hiring a lawyer.
A few days before starting your trial, you must file your opening statement with the court. The opening statement must set out your case briefly, referring to both the facts and the law. An experienced lawyer will know the law and how it applies to the facts of your case. The court will expect the same application from you if you decide to act in person.
Before you enter the court, you should familiarise yourself with court etiquette. Appearing in court can be very daunting. Civil lawyers appear in court every day and know how to dress, behave, and address the court. They know when to speak and cannot interrupt the judge or the lawyer for the other side. If you are not familiar with the court process, you might want to engage a lawyer to act on your behalf.
Presenting and Testing Evidence
Knowing how to act and when to speak may be the least of your problems when defending yourself. Presenting your case and testing the other party’s case can be disastrous if you are not familiar with the rules of evidence and procedure. Effective cross-examination is an art and a skill that develops with experience. An experienced civil litigator will help you to develop a strategy to present a strong case. They know the law and can identify weaknesses in the other party’s case. They have the skills to decide when to use documentary evidence instead of evidence-in-chief. They know how to formulate questions and use documentary evidence or witnesses to contradict evidence presented by the other party. They also know when to object to a question by the opposing party’s lawyer. An experienced litigator knows what is relevant and what is not. They know how to apply the rules of evidence and how to protect you and your witnesses whilst testifying. They know what is needed to present a solid case.
During closing arguments, a skilled litigator will summarise your case and focus on the relevant issues to persuade the court to rule in your favour. Closing arguments should set out the relevant legal authorities supporting your arguments. A civil litigation lawyer will be familiar with recent court decisions, legislation, and other factors supporting your case.
In Singapore, parties to a civil lawsuit are encouraged to settle. Order 22A of the Rules of Court provides mechanisms to resolve disputes rather than go to court. There may be adverse cost consequences if you refuse to accept a settlement offer and the other party obtains a better judgment than the settlement offer. An experienced civil lawyer can advise you on whether you should take an offer. They know how to evaluate your case and decide whether it is a good offer or not.
Is It Worth Suing the Other Party?
Whether it is worth suing may sound like a silly question. Yet, it is a crucial factor to consider before initiating a civil lawsuit. Civil litigation is expensive. There is no point in suing a party who has no money to comply with a judgment. You may need to investigate the other party’s affairs before issuing a summons. You might need to do a bankruptcy search or check if the party is currently being sued. Does the party own any property, is there a mortgage over the property? Is the party generally in a financial position to pay you? Lawyers have investigators and have access to data that could confirm whether it is worth suing the other party or not.
Civil litigation can be lengthy and costly. It is a complex process. Often it would be better to consider alternative dispute resolution options. It might be quicker and less expensive than litigating your matter in court. You can defend yourself, but it might be cheaper and less complicated to engage an experienced lawyer. A civil lawyer will evaluate the merits of your case and advise on the best option for your matter.
If you decide to take your case to court, an experienced civil litigator has the expertise and skills to fight for the best outcome in your case. Defending yourself is risky if you are not familiar with civil procedures, the law, and do not have trial advocacy skills. Remember, the court will hold you to the same standards as a trained lawyer.