Radical changes to Singapore’s expert evidence rules…won’t proceed

In October 2018 the Singapore Civil Justice Review Committee (CJCR) and Civil Justice Commission (CJC) jointly issued a consultation paper seeking feedback on a number of measures intended to “enhance judicial involvement in civil proceedings to ensure that disputes are resolved efficiently and at a reasonable cost.”

The proposals included measures to mandate ADR, narrow the issues in dispute through better case management, reform discovery procedures, limit the number of applications that parties could file, and – most relevantly for my work – use a single joint expert witness if expert evidence was necessary.

The paper identified three problems said to arise under the current system under which each party appoints its own experts:

  • Party-appointed experts are presented with the case framed from the perspective of those engaging them, which might influence their interpretation of the evidence.
  • The experts often presented “irreconcilable differences in opinion,” which complicated the issues before the court.
  • The preparation and presentation of expert evidence resulted in disproportionately high costs.

In my experience, it is common for party-appointed expert witnesses to arrive at different opinions.  Sometimes that is because they are asked different questions, more usually it is because they are working with different assumptions.

The current position

Rule 5 of order 40A of the current Singapore Rules of Court provide the Courts with discretion to order experts to undertake “a discussion” and prepare a statement – but a meeting is not mandatory, and crucially, the contents of the discussion will not be put before the Court unless all parties agree (my emphasis in bold):

5.—  (1)  The Court may, at any stage, direct a discussion between experts for the purpose of requiring them to —

(a)        identify the issues in the proceedings; and

(b)        where possible, reach agreement on an issue.

(2)  The Court may specify the issues which the experts must discuss.

(3)  The Court may direct that following a discussion between the experts, they must prepare a statement for the Court showing —

(a)        those issues on which they agree; and

(b)        those issues on which they disagree and a summary of their reasons for disagreeing.

(4)  The contents of the discussions between the experts shall not be referred to at the trial unless the parties agree.

(5)  Where the experts reach agreement on an issue during their discussions, the agreement shall not bind the parties, unless the parties expressly agree to be bound by the agreement.

The Practice Directions of the Singapore International Commercial Court go further.  Paragraph 88 sets a default process whereby experts will meet before trial without lawyers present to discuss their reports, and then produce a joint experts’ report setting out:

(a) a list of issues and/or technical issues;

(b) areas/issues where they are agreed;

(c) areas/issues where they disagree;

(d) the reasons, nature and extent of their disagreement; and

(e) any other information which may assist the Court.”

Even though the parties are not bound by any agreement between experts, notably, “the Court will be entitled to take cognizance of the expert’s agreement.

The CJC proposals

Rather than move along the Singapore International Commercial Court pathway, the CJC proposed quite radical changes by which:

  1. Experts would only be used where the Court formed the view that their evidence would “contribute materially to the determination” of issues that were not capable of resolution by submissions or an agreed statement of facts.
  2. The general rule would be that only one common expert would be used (although the Court would also be able to appoint its own expert). The Court would control the appointment and use of the experts, giving directions about “the method of questioning and the remuneration to be paid.”
  3. The parties would be required to agree on the list of issues to be referred for expert evidence and the common set of facts on which the experts are to rely.

Easier said than done?

Producing an agreed list of issues and a common set of facts appears to be a worthwhile objective – but might be easier said than done.   In practice it would be likely to result in extensive use of so-called “dirty” (or “shadow”) experts working to identify the outcomes resulting from various possible counter-factual scenarios, followed by hard-fought battles in Court to attack or defend the preferred counter-factual.

The Ministry of Law response

On 11 June 2021 the Singapore Ministry of Law issued its response to the consultation process. In relation to the expert evidence proposal, it noted that:

A number of parties expressed concerns regarding the proposal for parties to agree and appoint a single joint expert.  In general, parties felt that the current rules pertaining to the adducing of expert witness evidence are sufficiently robust, and that the proposal may increase costs and satellite litigation.

As a consequence, it is now proposed that the rules will be changed to encourage parties to agree on a single expert witness where possible – but not make the use of a single expert mandatory.

 

Virtual Hot Tubbing in the Singapore International Commercial Court, in a Stage 4 Lockdown

“Hot tubbing” is the informal name used to describe expert witnesses giving evidence at the same time, “concurrent evidence” is the formal term. 

Hot tubbing allows counsel to ask the experts to comment on each other’s answers in real time, and judges to develop a conversation between two experts to discuss, for example, how and why they hold different positions.  From my perspective, it works well to help parties to narrow the range of matter in dispute and get to the nub of the issues.

A recent engagement had me giving hot-tub evidence to the Singapore International Commercial Court, by videolink. 

My counterpart was in New York, so we were ‘back-of-the clock’ to each other, which made it impractical to schedule a full day together.  Thankfully, he was unfailingly helpful and collaborative, and we were able to assemble a Joint Report by several shorter sessions together with email.

Ordinarily video evidence would be given from a room under the supervision of a local lawyer, to ensure that a witness is operating under the same conditions as if giving evidence in person.  But with Stage 4 lockdowns in place in Melbourne, it was not possible to leave home or to have someone attend mine.  The solution was to use cameras to provide a view of the door to the room – so that any opening to admit a sneaky witness-coach would be evident, and a view of the desktop – so that the use of notes or materials would be visible too.

The use of technology by the SICC is striking. A draft transcript was available in almost real time – appearing on screen with perhaps a one second delay, and a final transcript circulated each evening.  Any documents referred to were shared on screen, in real time.  Not only was attendance by video link accommodated, the Court was prepared to sit out of normal hours (a 5pm to midnight session on one occasion) to accommodate witnesses in different time zones – very humane!

Singapore has set itself to be an international centre for dispute resolution.  The work that has been done towards that objective is impressive.

My “Hot-Tubbing experience” – giving expert evidence concurrently

One of the more interesting things I have done in the last six months was to ‘hot tub’* – give evidence concurrently with another expert – in the Supreme Court of Victoria.

The standard approach to expert evidence has each side engaging their own expert, who is asked to answer specific questions seen as most central to their own case.  Each expert is cross-examined separately.

The Supreme Court Rules allow the Court to direct experts to confer, and if so, specifically requires them to try to agree.  The experts must then prepare a joint report identifying areas of agreement and areas of disagreement, setting out the reasons for any disagreement.

In the matter I was involved with (which was concerned with compliance with the Banking Code of Conduct) the Court also made orders that that the two experts give evidence concurrently, sitting side by side in the witness box.

Australian Courts are apparently seen as leading the world in the use of concurrent evidence, which has been described as enabling:

“each expert to concentrate on the real issues between them. The judge or listener can hear all the experts discussing the same issue at the same time to explain his or her point in a discussion with a professional colleague. The technique reduces the chances of the experts, lawyers and judge, jury or tribunal misunderstanding what the experts are saying”  Rares J

As well as answering questions from the two barristers and the judge, at times each expert was given the opportunity to comment on the evidence given by the other expert.

The joint nature of the evidence lengthened the time that we were in the witness box to a full day’s hearing.  Even when not being directly questioned it was still necessary to pay close attention because of the possibility of being asked to comment on the evidence given by the other expert.

In my case the other expert was a person I know well, and respect very highly, which in one sense made things easier because we each thought even more carefully before disagreeing with the other!

All in all it was an enjoyable experience, and well worth considering if you have the opportunity.

*”Hot-tub” seems to provoke mirth (!) but it is actually a term used by the Court – see note 3 to Annexure B of the Federal Court Expert Evidence Practice Note (GPN-EXPT).