Lawyers beat evasive tactics by serving papers via WhatsApp, email

Lawyers beat evasive tactics by serving papers via WhatsApp, email

For the past year, lawyer Adrian Wee has been using emails to notify some individuals that they have been sued by his clients.

And he would consider adding WhatsApp to his arsenal of electronic avenues to serve papers on hard-to-reach individuals if the circumstances call for it, now that the State Courts has given the green light for court papers to be served to an individual through the popular messaging system.

Mr Wee, director of law firm Characterist, said an electronic legal notice is usually used in debt recovery or harassment cases. “In the old days, if the guy’s not home, you have to come back later. It’s easy for them to evade (being served the court papers) by not opening the door. It gets difficult because that can delay proceedings,” he said.

Such evasive tactics may no longer work in this digital age. In May, the High Court ruled that an Australian-based game developer, accused of copyright theft, could be notified of civil action through electronic means such as Facebook, Skype, Internet message board and email.

However, certain conditions must first be met, such as posting physical copies of the legal notice on the door of the individual’s last-known address, or through registered mail. High Court Assistant Registrar Zhuang Wenxiong also said that electronic means “include WhatsApp and other smartphone messaging platforms linked to mobile phone numbers”.

On Oct 20, The Straits Times reported that the State Courts had allowed court papers to be served to a defendant over WhatsApp earlier this month. R&D Pharmaceuticals had started legal action to recover a S$43,000 loan to Mr Tan Chong Min, its business associate, but earlier attempts to reach him at his last-known address had been futile.

R&D’s lawyer Vijai Parwani of Parwani Law told TODAY that his firm had a copy of Mr Tan’s identification card, and matched its photograph to his WhatsApp display picture, to prove that the messenger was a legitimate platform to reach him. R&D eventually received a response from Mr Tan.

Despite the court rulings allowing the use of electronic means to serve legal notices, several lawyers told TODAY that they have yet to try such platforms. Mr Wee said that over the past year, he has used email to notify individuals of their lawsuits in under 10 cases. Mr Jason Chan, director of Amica Law, said most lawyers would prefer to stick to traditional means of serving civil suits “in case there’s any dispute” as to whether the defendant actually received the court papers.

Still, Mr Ronald Wong, associate director of Covenant Chambers, pointed out that communicating over WhatsApp or Facebook is commonplace. “We interact with strangers without necessarily knowing their residential address,” he said. “That means if we have legal action, it requires us to be able to bring notice to the person through the very means of communication that we’ve always been using to communicate with them.”

Mr Bryan Tan, from law firm Pinsent Masons, believes that serving notices through social media platforms will make it easier for the plaintiff to start legal proceedings, since such platforms have information on the last known activity of the user.

In the WhatsApp case, for example, once the court’s approval had been obtained, Mr Tan would have been deemed to have been served with the legal notice, even if he did not respond to the message sent by R&D’s lawyer.


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