A writ of summons begins a legal process in the civil courts in Singapore. It has no relevance to criminal cases.

What is a writ of summons?

A writ of summons is the starting point of civil proceedings in Singapore.

Commonly, there is some legal ‘to and fro’ before a writ of summons is issued; these exchanges are often described as ‘before action’ and include things such as a letter of demand sent from the claimant or, more typically, their lawyer.

Formal court proceedings start with the writ of summons; this document instigates the process.

Common actions that start with a writ of summons

A writ of summons is only relevant to civil proceedings; it doesn’t apply to criminal cases. Here are some of the most common actions that start with a writ of summons:

  • Actions in tort, including claims for damages arising out of fraud.
  • Contractual disputes and claims for damages because the contract terms have been breached.
  • Personal injury claims from road accidents or accidents in the workplace, or any negligent act.
  • Intellectual property claims, including infringement of copyright, patents, or trademarks.

What should you do if you receive one?

Never ignore a writ of summons, even if you think the claim is unfounded. The legal process has begun, so the claimant and defendant must follow the correct steps in the civil procedure rules.

If you receive a writ of summons, the primary decision is whether you want to defend it. If the answer is no, the claimant can proceed to judgment without the necessity and cost of a hearing or trial.

The court simply makes a default judgment and decides on the amount that should be paid to the claimant.

Hiring professional legal representation is always advisable for defendants who want to contest or defend the claim. Even in simple cases, an unqualified defence can make matters worse and not achieve anything other than a hefty bill for costs.

A defendant who wishes to defend the claim must file a memorandum of appearance in the court, and within the date stated in the writ of summons. A defence follows this and, if appropriate, a counterclaim against the claimant.

A clearly defined pre-trial process includes the opportunity to opt for mediation to settle the dispute.

How does a writ of summons work?

Filing a writ of summons used to be personal, so the document was physically taken to the court for issuance.

Since the advent of the internet, a writ of summons is filed electronically by a claimant or their legal representative using eLitigation. The writ is then processed by the courts and issued. 

Filing a writ of summons in the correct court

The choice of the court depends on the value of the claim. The Magistrates’ court is the destination for civil actions worth S$60,000 or less. The District courts handle civil actions that don’t exceed S$250,000, and industrial accident and road traffic personal injury claims up to a value of S$500,000. The Supreme Court is for anything above these stipulated amounts.

The court stipulates a time limit for the writ to be served, although this can be extended in certain circumstances.

The writ is served by the claimant’s lawyers or their appointed process server personally on the defendant, or their nominated solicitors. Personal service is mandatory.

Legal proceedings begin at the point of service, not when the court issues the writ. Depending on how the writ is served affects when the proceedings officially start. This is a crucial point as there is a timeline that both parties to the claim must follow and that all flows from the point of service.

Some law firms in Singapore ask the defendant to attend their offices to collect the writ in person rather than use a process server. Service is deemed to be from the exact time the defendant collects the document.

Service on a company

Service on a company or business is different, and other rules exist.

A writ of summons can be deemed served on an officer of the company, or by sending it registered post to the company’s registered office, or delivering it there in person.

If the company uses a registered address purely as a mailbox rather than physical premises, then the writ of summons is still served on the day it drops on the doormat, even if there is no one there to see it.

A long delay can have huge implications on the defendant’s ability to defend the claim, and the court will have little sympathy toward companies who claim their address is purely a mailbox service and not a real office.

The difference between a letter of demand and a writ of summons

Unlike a writ of summons, a letter of demand is not an official document of the court.

A letter of demand sets out the same information that may be contained in a writ of summons, but it does not start official legal proceedings.

It can state, however, that proceedings will follow if the claimant’s demands are unmet, so the letter acts as a kind of pre-litigation warning.

However, just because a claimant or their lawyer has issued a letter of demand does not mean they are bound to follow up with a writ of summons. The claimant still has the option to settle via mediation or drop the case altogether, even though they may have said they would commence legal proceedings without a favourable response.

Final thoughts on Writ of Summons

A writ of summons is a red flag to whoever receives one that a legal process has begun. This means the recipient or defendant must take action and cannot afford to ignore the writ.

For a claimant, a writ of summons can finally provide the traction that other methods didn’t and get the defendant to wake up and take action.

Whether you’ve received or issued a writ of summons, taking legal advice is essential before you act.

Litigation is not always the only or best answer in a dispute, and an experienced lawyer can advise on some cost-effective alternatives. Defending a writ of summons will usually require professional input, especially if the defendant wants to issue a counterclaim.

This content was written and reviewed by a lawyer but it does not constitute legal advice. We always recommend engaging a lawyer before taking any legal action.

Frequently asked questions

Is a writ of summons the same as originating claims?

Since 1 April 2022, a writ of summons became known as an originating claim – they are the same thing and perform the same function.

What is substituted service of a writ?

Substituted service is when the personal service of a writ is impossible. This might be because the defendant deliberately avoids service, potentially by moving out of Singapore, or they simply cannot be located.

What is a statement of claim?

The statement of claim is a document attached to a writ of summons. It usually contains details such as the name of the claimant and the opposing party, the defendant, and the connection between them, for instance, retailer and customer.

There is also a reference to the alleged breach of duty or obligations and an outline of the material facts to support this. Finally, the statement of claim will list the losses suffered by the claimant and the relief sought.

Who qualifies for Legal Aid?

The Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) offers help in civil cases to people who fulfil their eligibility criteria. To qualify, the applicant must be either a citizen of Singapore or a Permanent Resident (PR).

Legal aid is not a free ticket; most applicants will have to pay something towards their costs based on a LAB assessment, and this depends on the complexity of the case. Usually, the amount required from the applicant won’t exceed S$1,500; sometimes, the LAB allows this to be paid in instalments.

Certain civil proceedings are not included within the criteria, such as defamation cases and proceedings before the Small Claims Tribunal.

Applicants must pass a means test that considers their financial status and a merits test that looks at the case’s chance of succeeding in court.

Since 16 October 2019, the LAB has had the discretion to assess the cases of applicants who pass the merits test but who do not pass the means test and grant legal aid regardless.

What is the time limit to serve a writ of summons?

A writ of summons is usually valid for six months within Singapore. The time limit for serving a writ of summons outside Singapore is twelve months. If the writ is not served within the specified time limit, it becomes invalid, and the process must begin again.