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Inaccessibility of high court fees reflects “pathetic state of access to justice in Singapore”: Lawyer M Ravi

The inaccessibility of judicial recourse in Singapore due to high court fees reflect “the pathetic state of access to justice in Singapore”, said human rights lawyer Ravi Madasamy, or commonly known as Mr M Ravi.

Drawing from a conversation with his Malaysian colleague Arun Kasi on Fri (24 May), Mr M Ravi recalled in a Facebook post how “utterly shocked” Mr Kasi was upon learning that the security of costs for appealing a decision to the Court of Appeal in Singapore carries a price tag of S$20,000.

In contrast, he said, “no security of costs is needed to file an appeal to the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court” in Malaysia.

“It used to be RM1,000 but even that was abolished last year in order to give litigants access to justice,” added Mr M Ravi

“Remember that Jolovan would have lost his right to appeal if a rich donor did not step forward. Let’s not forget John Tan who is also struggling to find the 20k to file an appeal.

“That is the pathetic state of access to justice in Singapore when one has to depend on some rich and influential figure to step forward to assist,” he lamented.

Mr M Ravi’s statement was made following the decision of Lee Hsien Yang – the son of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the younger brother of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong – to assist civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham in putting up a S$20,000 security deposit for an appeal against a High Court conviction.

Mr Wham was found guilty of scandalising the judiciary after he opined via a Facebook post that Singapore’s courts are not as independent as Malaysia’s with regard to cases with political implications. Justice Woo Bih Li had subsequently imposed a fine of S$5,000 as a part of his sentencing.

The activist had indicated in a tweet on Wed (22 May) that the amount placed as security deposit might not be recoverable if he loses his appeal and subsequently commented that “Justice is not cheap!”.

In addition to the fine, Mr Wham was instructed by Justice Woo to pay S$2997.82 in legal costs and disbursements to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

The requirement to place a S$20,000 deposit for security for costs is stipulated under Order 57, Rule 3(3) of the Rules of Court as seen below:

Chapter 322, Section 80 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, under which the Rules of Court is written also outlines the manner in which the Court may instruct the appellant to give security for costs, which appears to be arbitrary and open to the Court’s discretion:

“Apart from the security of costs, the filing fees in court are also very expensive which adds to the rising legal costs. I won’t be surprised if we have the highest filing fees and courtroom and other related fees in the world,” Mr Madasamy added.

Drawing another anecdote, he noted: “One foreign lawyer was surprised to find out that litigants have to separately pay thousands of dollars for courtroom fees in civil cases when the court services are already paid by the Singapore taxpayers. He shook his head and said you guys are really really stupid ! What can I say?”

Acknowledging that “a resolution was reached with the lawyers” regarding the Government’s intention to “scale down legal fees of lawyers recently”, Mr Madasamy however said that he has “not heard the law minister touching on reducing of the filing fees in court, which is a significant component of legal costs”.

Consequently, he said: “I look forward to hearing from the Chief Justice, Law Minister and the Law Society on this issue at the annual Opening of the Legal Year in 2020.”

“Perhaps the Workers’ Party should table a motion on this issue in Parliament,” suggested Mr M Ravi.

A couple of netizens who commented on Mr M Ravi’s post found the high barriers to judicial recourse in Singapore appalling:

One commenter in particular, who is currently residing in New Zealand, pointed out that the same issue plagues legal systems “all over the world”, whereby “only the rich can get access to legal services and action”, to which Mr M Ravi rebutted that legal aid is available for constitutional and public interest cases in New Zealand, whereas it is not made available for such cases in Singapore: