A writ of summons is a court document that commences legal proceedings and informs the defendant that the plaintiff has started civil proceedings against him in a court of law. It requires the defendant to enter an appearance if he wishes to dispute the claim.
A writ of summons is often preceded by a letter of demand setting out the claims against the recipient. Unlike a writ of summons, a letter of demand is not a formal court document, and it does not start any formal legal proceedings. It merely informs the recipient of the claim and that legal action will follow if the demands aren’t met. If the letter of demand is not complied with, the claimant can decide whether to proceed with legal action or not.
If the claimant/plaintiff decides to proceed with legal action against the defendant, issuing a writ of summons will be the first step to commence with civil proceedings.
Filing a writ of summons
The plaintiff can either file the writ of summons personally or through a lawyer. Filing is usually done electronically through eLitigation. The writ will then be processed and issued by the court for service on the defendant or their lawyers.
Legal proceedings will not continue until the writ is served on the defendant.
Common actions that will commence with a writ of summons
Common civil actions that are commenced with a writ of summons include:
- Contractual disputes and claims for damages resulting from a breach of the contractual terms.
- Personal injury claims resulting from road or industrial accidents or negligence.
- Intellectual property actions for damages resulting from infringement of copyright, trademarks or patents.
- Admiralty and shipping claims.
- Tort actions, for example, claims for damages arising from fraud, or property damage from road accidents.
Where you file your action will depend on the value of your claim:
- Magistrates’ Court – civil actions for amounts not exceeding $60,000.
- District Courts – civil actions not exceeding $250,000, and road traffic claims and industrial accident personal injury claims not exceeding $500,000.
- Supreme Court – claims exceeding the prescribed amounts for the Magistrate and District Courts.
Statement of claim
A statement of claim is a court document often issued with the writ of summons. It is a concise statement of the nature of the claim and the relief sought by the action. It serves to notify the court and the defendant of the details of your claim.
If the statement of claim is not served with the writ of summons, the writ may be endorsed with a summary of the facts that the plaintiff is relying on, and the statement of claim must be served on the defendant within 14 days of the defendant entering an appearance.
Typically, a statement of claim should include the following:
- Details of the plaintiff and the defendant.
- The relationship between the parties.
- The essence of the dispute – the breach.
- The material facts of the dispute.
- The damages suffered by the plaintiff due to the breach.
- The relief or remedy sought by the plaintiff.
Under the rules of court, a plaintiff may ask the court at any time for permission to amend the statement of claim. In deciding whether to grant permission, the court will consider many factors, including whether the defendant will be prejudiced by the amendment.
Service of writ of summons
The writ of summons must be served within the time limits, and proceedings won’t continue until service is effected. The validity of the writ and the time limit within which it must be served are set out in the Rules of Court.
For service in Singapore, the plaintiff has 6 months to serve the writ, except for admiralty proceedings where the writ is valid for 12 months. The time limit for serving a writ of summons outside of Singapore is also 12 months.
If the plaintiff fails to serve the writ within the time limit, the writ becomes invalid and will have to be renewed.
The obligation is on the plaintiff or his lawyer to serve the issued writ on the defendant or his lawyer. Service must be in person.
A copy of the writ must be delivered to the defendant by hand. Some law firms in Singapore will send a letter to the defendant requesting the defendant to personally collect the writ of summons at the lawyer’s office. When the defendant complies, service is effected.
Service will be effected by serving the writ of summons on an “agent” of the company. A company is a juristic person, and the director or another officer of the company can accept service on behalf of the company. Alternatively, it can be sent by registered mail to the registered office of the company.
Substituted service means the defendant is served indirectly, either by post or dropping it off at the defendant’s workplace or giving it to a friend or family member that was approved by the court. In some instances of substituted service, it should be published in a newspaper.
Before the Court grants permission for substituted service, it must be satisfied that personal service is impractical, and several unsuccessful attempts have been made to serve the writ.
Examples of circumstances where the plaintiff may approach the court to allow substituted service include:
- The defendant cannot be found.
- The defendant leaves Singapore to evade being served.
- The defendant often moves from one country to another.
Serviced outside of Singapore
When a plaintiff wants to sue a party, who is outside of Singapore, he can approach the court for permission to serve the writ of summons on the defendant located outside of Singapore.
The court has the power, under the Rules of Court, to grant permission for the writ of summons to be served outside of Singapore in certain circumstances, for example:
- To enforce a contract that was signed in Singapore.
- Where the defendant runs a business or has property in Singapore.
- To claim for the administration of the estate of a person domiciled in Singapore at the time of his death.
- The act or omission that gave rise to a tort action occurred in Singapore.
What to do when you receive a writ of summons
When you receive a writ of summons, you must decide if you wish to contest the claim. If you acknowledge the claim and choose not to dispute it, you can contact the plaintiff and negotiate a settlement or just pay the claim and minimise legal costs.
If you want to contest the claim, you should engage a lawyer and enter your appearance by filing a memorandum of appearance in court within 8 days of receiving the writ of summons. If the writ of summons is served outside of Singapore, the defendant has 21 days after service to enter an appearance. A memorandum of appearance serves to inform the court that you will contest the case. You need to serve your defence on the plaintiff within 22 days from receiving the writ. If you wish to file a counterclaim, you must also do so in this time.
Ignoring a writ
It is essential not to ignore a writ of summons. The plaintiff can obtain a default judgement against you. This means the court will give judgement in your absence without a hearing. The court will assess the amount of money that the defendant should pay and make an order. This may be a final judgment or an interlocutory judgment.
There are options for the defendant to have a default judgement set aside, but they are costly and time-consuming.
Process after a writ of summons is served
Once all of the above steps are completed, the pretrial steps can commence.
The legal process of civil litigation in Singapore is complex and requires knowledge of legal form and process. As a plaintiff, you can lose your case before it even gets to court, and as a defendant, you can find yourself on the wrong end of a default judgement if you don’t understand the rules governing civil actions.
If you are considering commencing civil action against a defendant or if you are being sued in Singapore, you should seek legal advice from a lawyer with experience in civil procedure and litigation.