How Singapore Beat Court Delay

Singapore’s courts were a mess in the late 1980s. There was a five year backlog of cases, and the average commercial matter took between five and six years to resolve. Hearing dates were being set as much as two years in the future.

These timelines may sound familiar, if you’re involved with Canada’s civil courts. The numbers are eerily similar here right now.

And yet what happened in Singapore in the 1990s should encourage Canadians who want to see speedier access to justice in our country. A dramatic improvement was delivered, in only ten years. By the end of the decade, the backlog had been eliminated and the average commercial case was being disposed of in fifteen months. 95% of civil cases, in fact, were resolved within 365 days of their statements of claim.

These results were not, apparently, achieved at the expense of substantive or procedural justice. The first World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, issued in 2015, ranked Singapore 9th in the world, ahead of Canada at 15th. In a 1999 survey, 97% of Singaporeans agreed that “the courts administer justice fairly to all, with 92% describing the system as efficient.

This success, as described in two scholarly studies, offers four lessons for Canadian court systems and the people who care about them.

1. A Matter of Management

Observers give much of the credit to Yong Pung How, who in September of 1990 was appointed Chief Justice of Singapore, with an explicit mandate to reform the system. Interestingly, although Yong was a lawyer, he hadn’t practiced law between 1970 and 1989. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he had focused on a management career including stints as CEO of a large bank and Chairman of an airline.

Arguably, the resources and ideas necessary to dramatically improve our courts will be found not in the profession or intellectual discipline of law, but rather in those of management and especially public sector management.

2. Consumer Satisfaction

Professor Helena Whalen-Bridge observed that the Singapore courts’ new “business management principles … introduced a theme of consumer satisfaction that ultimately developed into a more robust approach to access to justice.” Justice is not a business, and courts do not have customers per se. however, court users have crucial perspectives on the system’s functioning. It helpful to systematically listen to what they have to say, and try to better satisfy them.

3. Political Support from the Top

Singapore’s leaders understood that underperforming courts were a threat to the country’s prosperity and development. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew said that “if we want to be a top financial centre, we must have lawyers and courts to match.” The justice system’s essential contributions to broader social goals was understood.

On the other hand most Canadian Premiers and Prime Ministers, like most Canadian voters, seem to attach little significance to the civil justice system or its struggles. Because our system of government concentrates power in first ministers’ offices, buy-in if not active leadership from those offices may be essential if we want to improve our justice system. That means funding and judicial appointments, but also a willingness to use whatever mechanisms are legally available to obtain efficient performance, and value for taxpayers’ money, from the system.

4. A Numbers Game?

Appointing more judges was certainly a factor in Singapore’s success. However, at the end of the 1990s Singapore had some of the most efficient courts in the world but only 0.64 judges per 100,000 residents — one of the smallest ratios in the world, according to one comparative study.

Interestingly, if Ontario had only 0.64 judges per 100,000 residents, the province would have fewer than 100 of them in total. In fact, there are over 300 in the Superior Court of Justice alone, plus hundreds more in the Ontario Court of Justice as well as hundreds of tribunal adjudicators. Chief Justice Yong did not shy away from connecting case disposal times to the productivity of judges, court staff, and lawyers.

Insularity is a luxury we cannot afford, if we want to dramatically improve access to civil justice in Canada. Successful reforms from other countries should be studied closely, and Singapore seems a good place to start.


  1. Gerald Genge, LL.M., P.Eng

    In Ontario, more judges and thus more courts may be only a partial answer. Another, more efficient perhaps, is to take the off ramp from civil court to private arbitration. That userr-pay model will keep the tax burden of a bulked up system down and of it is a loser pay system as well, force claimants to think twice about what their perceived rights and obligations actually are.

  2. Some great points here! In particular, throwing more resources at defective systems doesn’t make for spectacular improvement. In the tribunal world, the real change is going to come through a culture of service and accessibility that is grounded in user-centred design, and a recognition by system actors that “It’s not about me!”

  3. I even heard that Singapore has 24-hour tribunals/dispute resolution centres for minor disputes. Absolutely a good place to look at to increase our judicial efficiency.

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