Helping to Empower Litigants-in-Person – the Subordinate Courts HELP Centre
The Subordinate Courts of Singapore

The Problem

More than 95% of all criminal, civil, family and juvenile cases in Singapore are heard before the District Courts and Magistrate’s Courts of the Subordinate Courts of Singapore. Singapore has limited legal aid scheme. A majority of litigants do not qualify for legal aid. Hence large numbers of indigent litigants in the court proceedings are self-represented, without professional legal representation. For instance, in 2010, about 80% of divorce cases involved defendants without legal representation and 100% of respondents in maintenance and family violence cases were similarly unrepresented. During the same period, 97% of complainants in maintenance cases involving women and their dependent children were unrepresented and many more appeared in court without a lawyer in family violence cases. In the criminal courts, 41% of accused persons, many of whom faced charges for serious offences such as drug trafficking and possession, and violent offences were without counsel at the pre-trial stage. As can be seen, a very large group of people may not fully appreciate their legal rights. When an unrepresented litigant faces a legally represented litigant there is an apparent imbalance of power during the proceedings

Ensuring that members in this significant group are able to present their case, know their legal rights, follow proceedings and understand judicial rulings in their cases is essential. Without assistance being given, this group is at a significant disadvantage and would be deprived of effective and quality access to justice. Because of the litigant-In-Person’s inability to fully understand and participate in court proceedings, his case may be undermined, hence compromising the delivery of justice.

There is hence this large group of litigants and accused persons who traverse the complicated legal and judicial system without legal representation as they do not qualify for state-funded legal aid, and at the same time cannot afford legal representation. As a result, those in this “sandwiched” social class - many of these Litigants-In-Persons (LIPs) only have secondary school qualifications according to a survey conducted by the Subordinate Courts in 2010 - are forced to go to court alone, facing unfamiliar court procedures whilst having to deal with highly personal and emotionally sensitive issues which can or (as is more often the case) cannot be properly addressed through legal recourse.

In addition to this sandwiched social class, many litigants choose to self-represent. Although most in this latter group are capable of self-representation, without legal training, it cannot be expected of them to be as familiar with the rules of court as counsel are trained to be. Problems arose as these LIPs were unable to put their best case forward according to the rules of court and did not know the legal principles to which applied to their case. Many confused their roles as witnesses with their roles as advocates for their case, and vice versa.

Fundamentally, there were ever more challenges arising for judges, court administrators, prosecutors and lawyers alike when dealing with cases involving such LIPs. The real test for the judge was to be able to explain these often alien and complicated rules of court and legal principles to the LIPs whilst maintaining balance and fairness to all parties in a proceeding and without being seen to be anything but impartial. Without such guidance, criminal proceedings risk sanctions affecting life and liberty, family law cases may affect the welfare of children, and civil processes could be difficult to navigate as they tend to be lawyer-centred.

These concerns culminated in questions over the quality and true level of access to justice, as well as the delivery of the same, and a solution had to be found to empower these LIPs in order to level the playing field for them in the justice process.

Solution and Key Benefits

 What is the initiative about? (the solution)
It cannot be gainsaid that true access to justice for all must necessarily entail a court system which is not just for lawyers but one for all litigants, legally represented or otherwise. A key plank towards ensuring that there is such equal access to quality justice for all is to level the playing field for these unrepresented litigants.

Towards this end, the setting up of a self-help centre for unrepresented in the premises of the Subordinate Courts was suggested.

Called the HELP (Helping to Empower Litigants-in-Person) Centre, the objective of the Centre is to assist LIPs in the conduct of their cases by providing them with basic information on court processes, procedures and practices. With the establishment of the HELP Centre, LIPs are now able to receive basic information about the respective justice processes and early summary advice as to whether it is feasible to pursue or defend a case. If considered to be feasible, a case is able to be dealt with in a more expedient fashion.

There are two HELP Centre locations, each catering to different litigant profiles that have distinct needs. One is in the main Subordinate Courts building dealing with criminal and civil cases and another is in the Family and Juvenile Court building to deal with family matters. The Centre at both locations are manned by experienced and well-trained staff drawn from the three justice divisions who render assistance with general enquiries, general information on court forms, and court procedures and practices in different languages.

While the staff at the Centre provide practical information to help LIPs navigate the court system as conveniently as possible, they do not provide legal advice (for obvious reasons, as court personnel should not be dispensing legal advice which can impugn or seen to be impugn the court’s impartiality). For this purpose, the Subordinate Courts have collaborated with key stakeholders of the justice system, namely the Law Society of Singapore, the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers and more than 10 major law firms, to run free legal clinics and offer pro bono legal advice at the Centre on a regular basis.

Written court collaterals explain court procedures in different languages and educational videos are available for viewing by LIPs in criminal cases who would like to know the step-by-step processes of a criminal trial. At the Centre located at the Family and Juvenile Justice Division, LIPs are able to view specially developed videos explaining the procedures for making applications such as those for Personal Protection Orders.

Both locations have computer terminals with free internet access to provide litigants and other court users with additional sources of information that are easy to plough through. These include leading legal practitioners’ texts and guides and sample court forms. However, if required, HELP Centre counter staff members are always on hand to guide court through the information to address their needs, as well as provide referral services to other social assistance and legal aid agencies.

All services offered at the HELP Centre locations are provided free of charge, ensuring that the initiative remains true to its original purpose, that is to improve access to justice without obstacle. Since its inauguration in February 2010, nearly 6,000 court users have engaged the services of the HELP Centre. In many instances, early assistance by the HELP Centre staff officer, a volunteer lawyer or staff from a partner agency has greatly reduced inconvenience and frustration, as well as costs and drainage of resources that would have been brought about by protracted litigation.

Actors and Stakeholders

 Who proposed the solution, who implemented it and who were the stakeholders?
Independently of each other, the three justice divisions of the Subordinate Courts of Singapore (the Criminal, Civil, and Family and Juvenile Justice Divisions) began the initiative by proposing different measures to avoid a situation where a claim or defence with merit was not heard due to procedural and legal errors arising out of a layperson’s ignorance of technical procedural requirements and the relevant law.

Recognising the trend of more and more unrepresented litigants entering the court system in the future and being mindful of access to justice, the senior management of the Subordinate Courts set up a Working Group under the auspices of the Strategic Planning and Training Division to re-look all these various ad hoc measures and develop a more comprehensive, systemic and systematic solution to address the needs of the LIPs. As this would require momentous effort and support of the stakeholders of the justice system, collaboration with the legal fraternity and other aid agencies was key. The solution proposed by the Working Group took the form of a one-stop self-help centre and, with the approval of The Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong and the support of the justice stakeholders, the HELP Centre was established and opened on 26 February 2010 to amerliorate the onerous burden on the part of LIPs of traversing the complex justice process by making available a resources and assistance to aid these LIPs.

As outlined above, staff with experience in court procedure and trained in assisting lay persons in their queries man the Centre and are drawn from the three Justice Divisions. Equipped with the knowledge and skills, the HELP Centre officers provide information and advice on court processes and procedures to LIPs.

Given that the knowledge requirements of the staff manning the Centre are virtually identical with those of the registry staff in the Justice Divisions, and given the need for proper accountability and supervision by the Justice Divisions, especially since the informational and services provided are inextricably linked to the work of the Justice Divisions, the mechanics of the operation of the Centre are established along three parameters:

1. Each Justice Division has its own counter or set-up under the auspices of the HELP Centre;
2. The respective counters of the HELP Centre are “owned” by and under the control of the respective Justice Divisions. This has ensured that there is a clear reporting line and accountability.
3. There are two physical locations – one in the Havelock Building for the HELP Centre counters of the Criminal and Civil Justice Divisions, and another in the Family Court Building for that of the Family Justice Division.

To expand the scope of the services to include legal advice that were excluded from the information rendered by the counter staff, the Centre engages external agencies, both from the public and private sector.

External stakeholders included the Law Society of Singapore, the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS), the Legal Aid Bureau, the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, and various private legal practices, such as Allen and Gledhill LLP and WongPartnership LLP. Recently, the HELP Centres have also engaged the National University of Singapore’s Criminal justice Club to engage law students to offer these future lawyers a taste of pro bono work whilst providing them with a valuable learning experience in the practice of law.

All these partners offer an indispensable resource to sustain the Centre through volunteers who offer pro bono legal advice in aid of these burdened LIPs. The Law Society’s volunteer lawyers run free legal clinics for criminal matters twice a month and the ACLS offers free legal clinics twice a month for accused persons in remand referred to by the Court. For civil matters, 11 law firms are providing free legal advice to litigants once a week since the inauguration of the Centre.

(a) Strategies

 Describe how and when the initiative was implemented by answering these questions
 a.      What were the strategies used to implement the initiative? In no more than 500 words, provide a summary of the main objectives and strategies of the initiative, how they were established and by whom.
The objective of the HELP Centre is clear – to help empower Litigants-in-Person to navigate the court process so as to effectively conduct of their cases by providing them with basic information on court processes, procedures and practices, so as to enhance access to justice to this “vulnerable” group of court users who are disadvantaged by the lack of lawyer’s representation because they are either financially unable or for any other reason unwilling to engage one. At the end of the day, access to justice should not be restricted to those who can afford it but to all manner of litigants.

Once the problem (detailed in question 1 above) was identified, environmental surveys and research studies of foreign jurisdictions were conducted to identify benchmarks and the existence of any best practices to adapt. An in-depth survey was also conducted with LIPs in criminal, civil and family cases to better understand their concerns, challenges and needs. Through the studies, it was found that the idea of a self-help centre run by the courts is not a new one and a small number exist in some North American jurisdictions. However, what was found was that the components of a given self-help centre varied depending on the social and cultural background of the population in any given area. It was hence necessary to plan, develop and build up a self-help centre with the specific local conditions and customs in Singapore in mind, paying particularly sensitive attention to the uniqueness of a multi-racial, multi-language, multi-religious and multi-cultural population. The services and information provided had to be specially tailored to suit the needs and profile of LIPs in Singapore. In order to more holistically assist the LIP in the Singapore context, the HELP Centre had to provide three areas of support identified as essential:

1. Basic procedural information in plain language, and preferably in the 4 official languages used by different segments of the population;
2. Summary legal information;
3. Free legal advice;
4. Referral to mediation services available in and run by the Subordinate Courts (especially for civil and family cases); and
5. Ability to refer unrepresented litigants to other information sources and services if needed.

Since not all persons with legal problems require full legal representation, the HELP Centre offers assistance and advice proportionate to what the LIP needs. This means that the staff officers manning the counters of the Centre would only render information about procedure and choices litigants may have, to allow the latter to make informed decisions about their case. Any legal advice required would be undertaken at the free legal clinics. The Centre also assists LIPs to obtain legal representation by referring them to the relevant stakeholders.

Services are available to all self-represented parties at no cost and the emphasis is to provide legal information, not legal strategy and advice.

(b) Implementation

 b.      What were the key development and implementation steps and the chronology? No more than 500 words
Below are some major developments implemented in the past 22 months in chronological order:

1. One-stop Integrated Centre
Officially opened on 26 February 2010 and manned by experienced staff, the two HELP Centres provide procedural assistance to unrepresented litigants at no cost.

The HELP Centres provide unrepresented litigants with the basic tools and knowledge to navigate the system through a one-stop integrated centre, and to enable them to obtain basic information on court processes, procedures and practices. The experienced staff on duty assist the litigants with general information on court procedures and practices and, where appropriate, direct them to resources like informational brochures, basic textbooks and statutes, the dedicated webpage of Help Centre which contains FAQs, court forms, glossary of common court terms and other useful information. Litigants are also invited to watch educational videos on various court processes.

2 Partnering Lawyers and Associations to provide Free Legal Advice
To assist more unrepresented litigants to obtain legal advice, the Subordinate Courts have tied up with the Law Society and Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS) for their volunteers to provide free legal advice at the HELP Centre for criminal matters twice a month, and with more than 10 leading Singapore law firms to provide free legal advice for litigants on civil matters once a week. The Law Society and the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers also provide free legal advice to litigants on family matters.

For litigants-in-person who wish to seek legal advice, they can register to attend a legal clinic at the premises of the HELP Centre. The clinic is held fortnightly in the evenings (every first and third Thursday of each month from 6.30 to 8.30 pm) with two lawyers in attendance. For remanded accused persons, they are referred by the Court to the ACLS remand clinic which started on 4 March 2010. The clinic is also held fortnightly. For civil cases, lawyers from volunteer law firms have, since March 2010, provided free consultations to LIPs every Wednesday from 11 am to 1 pm at the HELP Centre premises. The Family Court Help Centre also assists LIPs to register for free legal clinics run by volunteer lawyers. A volunteer lawyer from the Law Society attends to LIPs every Wednesday of the month, between 4:30 pm and 6 pm, except for the 3rd Wednesday of the month, when a volunteer lawyer from the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers would assist LIPs between 5 pm and 6 pm.

3 Engaging Student Volunteers
In addition to lawyer volunteers, the Subordinate Courts also engage the contributions of student volunteers. Volunteer law students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Criminal Justice Club participate and provide support at the HELP Centre, and also at the Criminal Legal Clinics and the ACLS’ Remand Legal Clinics. They assist in form-filling, interviewing the LIPs and recording down interview notes.

(c) Overcoming Obstacles

 c.      What were the main obstacles encountered? How were they overcome? No more than 500 words
The main obstacles encountered by the HELP Centres arise from both internal and external conditions and limitations. The key challenges encountered in developing programmes for and operating the HELP Centres and the ways to overcome them are set out below:

1. Shortage of Quality Manpower: In order to serve the LIPs effectively, it is important for the HELP Centres to be equipped with good quality, knowledgeable, friendly and helpful staff who will serve the purposes of litigants. Finding suitable staff who have the necessary know-how in court processes and procedural areas of law, relevant experience and excellent “soft” skills to handle emotional and distraught LIPs is challenging. Neither is there enough funding to engage lawyers to run the HELP Centres. The staff in Subordinate Courts who could best perform this role are the registry staff from the Justice Divisions. In the circumstances, at the inception of the initiative, it was decided that a few staff members from the Justice Divisions would be mobilised and deployed to kick-start the operations of the HELP Centre. Experienced registry staff were tapped on to man the HELP Centre for the first year and all other experienced staff were also provided necessary training to step up to the duties at the HELP Centre if exigencies of services called for it. Within the first year, good quality staff from all three Justice Divisions who exhibited the potential to serve at the HELP Centre were identified, interviewed and trained for their duties at the HELP Centre. Besides putting them through intensive on-the-job training, the Subordinate Courts also provide staff with relevant professional training such as courses on “Handling Difficult Customers”, “Crisis Communication”, “Crisis Preparation and Management”, “Art of Effective Listening”, “Think On Your Feet”, and “Conflict Management” to equip them with positive relationship management skills when dealing with the litigants.

2. Managing the Expectations of Litigants: Staff at the two HELP Centres provide basic information on court processes, procedures and practices for litigants to make informed decisions about their cases. They are not allowed to provide any legal advice or representation in court. As a measure to manage litigants’ expectations, the fact that HELP Centre staff are not able to give legal advice was publicised to the public through media releases, news reports, posters, the website, notices in the HELP Centres etc. Training was also given to staff to explain to litigants why they are not able to give legal advice.

3. Litigants want Legal Advice in addition to Procedural Advice: There is a loud and obvious call from the unrepresented litigants, especially those who fall within the sandwiched class as they are financially unable to afford a counsel and at the same time, they do not qualify for the State’s legal aid, for the provision of pro bono legal services. In order to serve the community better and to sustain the initiative of establishing the HELP Centres, the Subordinate Courts approached and collaborated with legal partners such as the Law Society, Legal Aid Bureau, Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS), Singapore of Women Lawyers, and leading law firms to hold legal clinics for the LIPs. Another hurdle that the Subordinate Courts needed to cross was finding volunteer lawyers – although many law firms were willing to come on board, not many individual lawyers were willing to sacrifice their personal time for pro bono work given the demands of legal practice. To counteract the problem, the senior management of Subordinate Courts actively engage law firms to call on their partners and associates to serve in the legal clinics to do their part in service to the community.

(d) Use of Resources

 d.      What resources were used for the initiative and what were its key benefits? In no more than 500 words, specify what were the financial, technical and human resources’ costs associated with this initiative. Describe how resources were mobilized
The way in which technical and human resources were mobilised to set up and sustain the operations of the HELP Centre have been elaborated on in the answers to the preceding questions and would not be repeated here. In essence, resources were pulled from both the internal Justice Divisions and stakeholders of the justice system, including volunteer lawyers and law students.

As far as the required financial and infrastructure resources are concerned, the establishment of the HELP Centres only required minimal funding out of the Subordinate Courts’ operating budget. The space for the two HELP Centre locations is rent-free as they are within the court premises – the Centres were converted from two under-utilised children’s rooms in the main Subordinate Courts building and the Family and Juvenile Court building. There was only a one-time capital needed to convert the space(s) given and install the necessary office equipment, IT infrastructure, furniture and fixtures. There are no significant technical know-how costs involved, except for a small amount of professional training cost, as we have involved our own trained staff in managing the operations of the Centre and all the pro-bono lawyers and university students help at the Centre on a voluntary basis.

There is also minimal manpower cost involved. As mentioned, manpower resources are mobilised from each Justice Division. Therefore, each division only needs to recruit one or two more officers from their allocated budget to make up for the corresponding reduction in manpower in the Division.

A small regular sum from the Subordinate Courts’ budget is also set aside for continuous outreach and public education efforts, such as printing of informational brochures, posters, notices, and production of educational videos on court processes etc.

Between its establishment in end-February 2010 till November 2011, the HELP Centre has attended to a total of 5,997 enquiries, out of which 50% (ie 3,003 enquires) relate to family and divorce matters, 30% (ie 1,773 enquiries) relate to civil matters, and 20% (ie 1,221 enquiries) relate to criminal cases and magistrate’s complaints. Please see below:

No. of enquires Mar 10-Nov 11
Total:5997 (100%)
Family Div: 3003 (50%)
Crime Div: 1221 (20%)
Civil Div: 1273 (30%)

After a litigant has sought assistance at the HELP Centre, he will be asked to provide feedback on the services of the Centre. The table below summarises the feedback findings:

Satisfaction Levels|Family Matters|Criminal|Civil
HELP Centre Personnel(Overall Index)|99.9%|99.8%|99.6%
HELP Centre Services/Facilities|94.2%|99.6%|99.1%
Waiting Time Satisfactory|99.4%|99.8%|99.6%
Waiting Area is Comfortable|100.0%|99.7%|99.7%
Operating Hours are Convenient|98.6%|99.4%|98.0%
Overall Satisfaction with HELP Centre|99.5%|99.8%|99.1%

The satisfaction levels for litigants are very high, typically at 94% to 100%. Below are some very encouraging and positive comments from the LIPs, a sample of which is re-produced:

1. Help Centre staff were helpful, gave informative advice.
2. Appreciate for setting up Help Centre.
3. Thank you for the help and assistance provided. (The options) suggested are also very helpful to those of us not familiar with legal procedures.
4. Very nice and good conducive environment.
5. Passionate, sincere in helping my problem/friendly towards people - thank you.
6. HELP Centre is a useful spot for litigants like me who are in despair. Ms XXXX was understanding and extremely helpful.
7. The HELP Centre is very good and efficient in assisting layman like myself

Sustainability and Transferability

  Is the initiative sustainable and transferable?
The idea of a self-help centre run by the courts has proven to be a sustainable and transferable one, as seen in the growing number of such self-help centres in different jurisdictions. Hence, the initiative of establishing a HELP Centre can be replicated in many jurisdictions as long as the sustainable elements which sustain them are favourable. However, as stated above the components of a given self-help centre may vary and need to be customised according to the needs of the local population, societal and cultural conditions. The self-help centre may provide services in a physical location at or near a courthouse, from a mobile unit or through a virtual location on the Internet – or a mix of these models. Services offered may include basic legal information and resources, referrals to other agencies, assistance with completion of forms and summary legal advice by staff or volunteer lawyers.

Bearing in mind all the factors and elements of success of the Subordinate Courts’ HELP Centre (as detailed in the answers to questions 3, 6, 7 and 8), it is clear that in order to sustain and replicate the concept of the HELP Centre, there must be srong and long-term commitment on the part of the senior management to ensure that these elements of remain, including the following:

1. Sufficient financial, manpower and technical resources to ensure continual operations and growth of the self-help centre through public-private partnership, as is the model of the HELP Centre;

2 Strong support from the legal fraternity to encourage sustainable delivery of pro bono legal assistance to those who are ineligible for legal aid;

3 Collaboration with external stakeholders to expand the scope of services in a holistic manner and to create a “one-stop integrated centre” so that litigants can access to a full range of legal aid services on a wide range of categories of law;

4 Professional, experienced and well-trained staff who are knowledgeable and familiar with the procedures of the various justice divisions to provide quality and meaningful services.

All these factors and elements which are present in the Subordinate Courts’ solution in transforming the LIPs’ experience in the justice system to afford them equal and quality access to justice through the HELP Centre ensure the long-term sustainability of the initiative.

As elaborated on in the answer to question 3 above, with the success of the HELP Centre since its establishment, the services of the HELP Centre have been “scaled up” to enhance and expand its slew of services and capabilities by increasing the availability of self-help tools and facilities, information and referral services.

Lessons Learned

 What are the impact of your initiative and the lessons learned?
The key elements which have made the HELP Centre initiative a success have been set out in the answer to question 3, 6, 7, 8 and 9 above and will not be repeated here.

In this regard, the Subordinate Courts would like to highlight that one of the key elements which has made the HELP Centre a success is the strong support from all the key stakeholders of the justice and legal eco-system, from the lawyers to other public and non-profit agencies and even law schools. Without the backing, cooperation and assistance of the legal fraternity and other stakeholders (all of whom have put in a lot of time and effort to volunteer their services at the Centre), the whole initiative would not have succeeded in effectively addressing the needs of the LIPs. The initiative could also not have been sustained.

The second key element of success is visionary leadership which led to the initiation of the HELP Centre in the first place. The leadership has also put in place a long-term strategy to sustain this initiative. The Subordinate Courts are also continuously transformed the HELP Centre by enhancing its services to meet the ever-increasing needs of the LIPs.

Finally, perhaps the most important element of success and sustainability of the Subordinate Courts’ HELP Centre is the firm belief, passion and commitment on the part of all concerned, from top management to the line officers, in the motto of equal access to quality justice for all, a fundamental public good in any flourishing civic society.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   The Subordinate Courts of Singapore
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Yee Sze Thian
Title:   District Judge  
Telephone/ Fax:   65-64355956
Institution's / Project's Website:
Address:   No. 1 Havelock Square
Postal Code:   S059724
City:   Singapore
Country:   Singapore

          Go Back

Print friendly Page