How to defend myself against a civil action
The following legal procedures are related to a civil action commenced by a writ of summons (which constitutes the majority of civil cases).
If you receive a writ of summons naming you as the defendant, you are required to acknowledge service of the writ of summons (i.e. confirming that the document has been delivered to you) and to state whether or not you wish to defend the action brought against you by the plaintiff. To do so, you should complete all three copies of the acknowledgment of service form which accompany the writ of summons. Two copies of the acknowledgment of service form should be sent to the relevant Court Registry of the court within 14 days. You should keep one copy for your records.
How do I (as the defendant) calculate the period of 14 days allowed for filing the acknowledgment of service form?
A writ served on the defendant personally (i.e. delivered by hand) is treated as having been served on the day it was delivered to the defendant. A writ served by post or by insertion through the defendant's letter box is normally treated as having been served on the seventh day after the date of posting or insertion. However, if there is actual evidence showing the date when the posted or inserted writ actually came to the notice of the defendant, then that date would be treated as the date of service. The period of 14 days allowed for filing the acknowledgment of service form is to be calculated from (and including) the date of service.
What happens if the defendant does not file an acknowledgment of service form or a defence?
If the defendant does not file an acknowledgment of service or a defence within the time allowed, the plaintiff can apply to the court for judgment in favour of his claim. In such a case, a full trial is not required.
If the claim is related to a debt or liquidated damages (i.e. where the amount of the claim is fixed and ascertainable), such as an action on a dishonoured cheque, the plaintiff may enter judgment for the amount claimed and the relevant legal costs.
Interlocutory judgment will be entered instead if the plaintiff is claiming for unliquidated damages (i.e. where the amount of damages has to be assessed by the court), for example, for loss of profits or damages for injury to person or property. In such a case, the plaintiff will have to appear in court so that a judge or a master can assess the amount of damages he is entitled to.
What should I do if I decide NOT to defend the case?
If you decide not to defend a case being brought against you, and the plaintiff's claim against you is for a liquidated amount, you should indicate this decision on the acknowledgment of service form. Court judgment will then be entered against you for the amount of the plaintiff's claim. If you cannot afford to pay the amount of the plaintiff's claim, you should make an application to the court for a stay of execution of the judgment (i.e. an application to delay the enforcement of the judgment against you). If you intend to do so, you should tick the appropriate box on the acknowledgment of service form. Execution of the judgment will then be delayed for a period of 14 days after you file your acknowledgment of service form. You must, within this time, make an application to court by issuing a summons, supported by an affidavit or an affirmation setting out your means. In the affidavit or affirmation, you can state any offer which you wish to make for the payment of the amount claimed by the plaintiff. For example, you can offer to pay the debt by instalments.
A sample of a summons to stay execution of judgment/order (for High Court action) can be found on website of the Judiciary. To obtain a sample of an affidavit/affirmation, please go to the Resource Centre for Unrepresented Litigants website.
Before making an application to stay the execution of the judgment, you can also approach the plaintiff directly to negotiate settlement of the plaintiff's claim.
What should I do if I decide to defend the case?
If you wish to defend the claim brought against you by the plaintiff, you should file an acknowledgement of service at the Court Registry, stating in it whether you intend to contest the claim within 14 days after being served with the writ. The Court will send a copy of it to the plaintiff. You should then file and serve on the plaintiff a defence (explaining why you are disputing the plaintiff's claim) and a counterclaim against the plaintiff (if any). The defence and counterclaim have to be verified by a statement of truth. This has to be done before the expiration of 28 days after the time limited for acknowledging service of the writ or after the statement of claim is served on you, whichever is the later.
Some explanatory notes about how to prepare a defence and counterclaim, and a sample defence and counterclaim, can be obtained from the Resource Centre for Unrepresented Litigants.
One further point to note is that if you intend to defend the claim, you must specifically answer each and every allegation as set out in the plaintiff's statement of claim. In other words, you must reply in accordance with every point as written on the plaintiff's statement of claim. It will be deemed (considered) that you admit to any allegations that you do not specifically deny in your defence. (Note: The same applies to the plaintiff pleading to the counterclaim of the defendant.)
What happens if the defendant files a defence (and counterclaim)?
The plaintiff may file a reply to a defence within 28 days after receiving the defence, setting out additional facts in answer to the defence. However, even if the plaintiff does not file a reply, the allegations in the defence are deemed to be denied by the plaintiff.
If the defendant files a counterclaim, the plaintiff will have to file a defence to the counterclaim within 28 days after the counterclaim is served on the plaintiff, if the plaintiff wishes to dispute it. The defendant can apply for a court judgment against the plaintiff, in default of defence to the counterclaim, if the plaintiff fails to dispute the counterclaim within the allotted time. You should note that as far as the counterclaim is concerned, the plaintiff has become a defendant.
There are no prescribed forms for a reply or defence to a counterclaim. The plaintiff should combine the reply and any defence to the counterclaim in one single document.