16 Dec 2021

Standalone procedural rules unveiled to bolster Singapore International Commercial Court

Rules aim for 'clarity and efficiency' as Singapore moves to become jurisdiction of choice for high-stakes commercial disputes

Singapore's Supreme Court building Shutterstock

The Singapore International Commercial Court has published new court rules intended to more fairly and efficiently handle commercial cases.  

The move gives the SICC – a specialist division of Singapore’s Supreme Court – its own procedural rules distinct from those of Singapore’s High Court, which it had adopted since it was founded in 2015.

The new rules come into force next April and follow consultation with stakeholders, court users, advocates, registrars and judges – including the court’s international judges, who sit with nominated Singaporean judges to hear cases – on appropriate changes to case management. They also give parties the option of retaining their own lawyers, including foreign counsel.

Singapore’s chief justice, Sundaresh Menon, commented: “When we launched the SICC in January 2015, we aimed to enhance Singapore’s position as a trusted, neutral venue for dispute resolution in Asia and indeed the world.

“I am delighted that the SICC will now have its own, standalone set of procedural rules. The SICC Rules 2021 build on the hallmarks of litigation in the SICC – efficiency, procedural flexibility, fairness and impartiality, as well as the use of procedures responsive to the needs and realities of international commerce.”

Justice Quentin Loh, president of the SICC, explained the new rules retained key features of existing procedures alongside “new and novel changes which we hope will enhance the SICC and make it more attractive for potential users”.

He said: “Prime considerations in these changes are to save parties time and costs throughout the entire dispute resolution process,” citing robust case management, extensive judicial powers and the new rules enabling the quick, fair and cost-effective resolution of cases.

Loh added the changes set it aside from cases where “adjudicators are reluctant to deal firmly with dilatory tactics, as they are concerned that their awards may be subsequently set aside for lack of a fair hearing in what the legal profession terms ‘due process paranoia’.”

This was an implied critique of international arbitration, with the length and cost of proceedings having been criticised by Menon himself in an academic legal journal earlier this year.

Market feedback was positive, with Katie Chung, a Singapore-based international disputes and arbitration partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, saying the rules were a stepping-stone in Singapore’s attempt to become the jurisdiction of choice for high-stakes commercial disputes.

“The rules grant the SICC greater flexibility similar to arbitration procedures by introducing three types of adjudication tracks,” she said. “Through the express requirement for parties to consider alternative dispute resolution, the new rules seek to integrate the SICC further into Singapore’s well-established ADR institutions.”

Those institutions include the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), ranked jointly in May 2021 with London as one of the top spots for arbitration by potential users, and Singapore’s two mediation centres.

Chung added: “A game-changer here is the expedited timeframe for appeals against decisions on applications and after a trial or hearing on the merits.”

Seven Bedford Row’s Jern-Fei Ng QC said the new rules incorporated the best elements of international arbitration in a court setting, calling it “arbitration in litigation.”

Tomas Furlong, a disputes partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, agreed with both, saying reforms would keep the court at “the cutting edge of international disputes by providing flexible dispute settlement suited to international parties.”

Key to the reforms, added Ng, was “the reservoir of judicial talent that the SICC has in the form of its international judges also enables it to distinguish itself as a truly international commercial court.”

Furlong added: "These changes sit well with recently proposed legislation that would allow conditional fees for SICC disputes, another development that would be popular amongst commercial parties.”

The SICC also announced the creation of a specialist construction and technology list last month, to encourage parties to use it as an alternative to rival centres like London. 

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