In the Beginning: Litigation Defined

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When we hear the word “litigation”, what comes to mind? Before we can even begin to unravel the substance and procedure of litigation, we need a common understanding of what it means.


Litigation may be defined as “a legal proceeding in a court; a judicial contest to determine and enforce legal rights”. To litigate is to “contest [or engage] in legal proceedings”. See In other words, suing or being sued in the Singapore Courts.

Two key words may be seen here. Proceeding and contest. Knowing your legal rights (the substance of the law) is one thing; knowing how to proceed to enforce your legal rights is another. An elaborate and detailed process, involving at least 80 over major rules of procedure contained in the Rules of Court, rules of evidence and numerous other rules of etiquette, has been put in place to govern how such proceedings, including the trial process, should take place. This is to ensure, as far as practically possible, that the contest is fair, clear and able to achieve truth and justice. In short, this is called civil procedure. Even though things may not always remain all that civil.

The Parties

No contest is complete without adversaries or opponents. The claimant is called the Plaintiff. The one being sued is called the Defendant. Each of them may or may not appoint a lawyer or a team of lawyers to represent them. The proceedings are presided over by a Registrar (or Deputy or Assistant Registrar depending on the context) or a Judge, who has to make a ruling or decision after hearing all parties, evidence and arguments.

The Courts

Depending on the nature and value of the claim, it may be brought in one or more of the following courts: the Small Claims Tribunal, the Family and Juvenile Courts, the Subordinate Courts (which may be divided into the Magistrates Court and the District Court), the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Depending on the applicable rules, the decision may be subject to an appeal, or several rounds of appeal, up to the highest court in Singapore, the Court of Appeal (where 2 or more Judges of Appeal, often together with the Chief Justice, may sit to hear an appeal).


Litigation lawyers spend the rest of their professional lives practising how to combine substance and procedure to translate a theoretical legal opinion into an enforceable Judgment.

The whole entire thing sounds daunting? Indeed it can be. From time to time, you may find litigants acting in person without a lawyer, for various reasons. However, these are far and few between, and very often, they are barely stumbling along.

That is why litigation lawyers exist. After spending an average of 4 years in law school studying what the law is (substance), they spend another 6 months studying civil procedure, another 6 months training with an experienced lawyer in a law firm, and the rest of their professional lives practising how to combine substance and procedure to translate a theoretical legal opinion into an enforceable Judgment, or to prevent such a Judgment from being made. Experienced litigation lawyers are not only professionals; they are also your guides and advocates, in the misty path of litigation.

With this basic definition in mind, we can now begin to unravel the substance and procedure of litigation.

The usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on are entirely my own. Importantly, my opinions do not constitute legal advice and you should definitely formally engage a lawyer to confirm, vary or refute my views.

To Sue or Not to Sue: Demystifying Litigation in Singapore @ © Dominic Chan, a Singapore litigation lawyer. All rights reserved.


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