AHPETC questions NEA on need for “mini-fairs” permit

AHPETC Chairperson, Ms Sylvia Lim and lawyer, Mr Peter Low. (Photo – Terry Xu)

By Terry Xu

The first day of court on the summons issued by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) started on Tuesday, 14 October, which saw questions on the strict liability of AHPETC in conducting a trade fair, and if such a permit was necessary to begin with.

The town council run by the Workers’ Party is accused of organising a Lunar New Year Fair on January this year without a valid permit from NEA. The fair was held from 10 January to 30 January at Aljunied GRC.

A total of six stall holders involved in the fair were issued notices of offences for illegal hawking, which was later compounded. The town council was given the same offer to have the offence compounded, but decided to claim trial.

If found guilty, AHPETC can be fined up to $1,000.

AHPETC did not have a permit: Prosecution

NEA’s prosecutor, Isaac Tan said that the fair, named “Lunar New year Flora and Community Fair 2014” which consisted of five stalls selling festive decorations, cookies and sweets, fruits such as pomelo, flowers and assorted potted plants, amounted to a “temporary fair”. As such, it required a licence under Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act (EPHA).

The first prosecution witness, Mr Tai Ji Choong, director of the Environmental Health Department, said the town council event constituted a breach of Section 35 of the EPHA.

Mr Tai stated that the reason for requiring permits to hold temporary events such as trade fairs is to prevent disamenities to the community, including shopkeepers operating in that community. He said the disamenities include noise nuisance, pest infestation, food hygiene issues and disruption to pedestrian flow.

The court heard that the town council had written to the NEA on 20 December 2013 to ask if a permit was required, and if so, for a copy of relevant application forms to be forwarded.

NEA had replied to the town council that a permit was required, and sent the forms to the town council. In a total of nine corresponding emails with NEA, AHPETC had indicated that the forms were unsuitable, to which NEA insisted otherwise.

The town council struck off the words “Trade Fair” from the forms titled “Application for Trade Fair Permit” and “Application for Trade Fair Foodstall Licence”, and added the word “Event” instead, on grounds that there were no other forms to be used.

NEA did not approve the town council’s application for a permit as it was deemed incomplete. NEA then requested on 9 January that the town council send the completed application forms as soon as possible.

The town council went ahead with the fair, even after a warning from the NEA to stop until a permit was issued.

Intention to commit offence irrelevant: Prosecution

Defence lawyer for the town council, Peter Low raised issues about the “strict liability” of AHPETC in obtaining the permit. He attempted to clarify with Mr Tai on specific sections in NEA’s form, such as those pertaining to the quota for such fairs and the need seek a letter of support from the Citizens’ Consultative Committee (CCC).

In response to questions by District Judge Victor Yeo on the purpose of his questions, he noted that it is necessity to establish such facts so it can be shown whether or not, the town council commit the “offence” deliberately. He also said that no permit was actually needed, as this was a social and communal function.

However, the prosecution argued that it is immaterial on the conditions which the permits are being issued and whether or not AHPETC had deliberately committed the offense as it is a strict liability under the section 35 of the EPHA. Mr Isaac Tan pointed out that questions posed by Mr Low are concepts to be determined through means of Judiciary review and added that the hearing is not an appropriate forum or avenue to seek the answers which the defense is asking for.

The presiding judge agreed with the prosecution that the court does not have the power to judge whether or not the conditions for the permit is justifiable and questions surrounding the conditions of how the permit is issued and why permits are issued are irrelevant to the ruling of the case.

Relevance of permit to town councils: Defence

Changing his line of questions, Mr Low attempted to establish if it was even necessary for town councils to have a permit for the fair.

He pointed out the difference between a 2008 version of the “trade fair” application form, and the version NEA sent to AHPETC to be completed. the 2008 version states that “only grassroots organisations and town councils are allowed to hold fairs”, while the version NEA sent to AHPETC indicated that “Only grassroots organisations and charitable, civic, educational, religious or social institutions are allowed to hold fairs.”

The version sent by NEA has no mention that town councils are allowed to conduct trade fairs as regulated by the conditions of the permit required.

Mr Low proceeded to question Mr Tai on when was the revision made to the application form to exclude “town councils” by NEA.

The prosecution questioned Mr Low on the rationale of his question to Mr Tai, to which MR Low responded by presenting three documents to support his case.

The first was an email sent by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to AHPETC on 14 January 2014, 5 days after NEA informed the town council that they have committed an offense, saying that town councils are not allowed to engage in commercial activities, including the organisation and operation of fairs, “as these are not related to their statutory function of management and maintenance of common property”.

Mr Low asked whether the town council should have applied for a permit from NEA in the first place, since MND is saying that the town council is not allowed to hold such events.

Next, Mr Low referred to Section 18 of the Town Council Act 329A, Section 18, which indicated that the functions of a town council are to “control, manage, maintain and improve the common property of the residential and commercial property in the housing estates of the Board within the town and to to exercise such powers and perform such duties.”

Mr Low argued with this point, again, that there should be no requirement for the town council to apply for a permit from NEA.

Lastly, Mr Low referred to the Town councils (use of common property) rules 2005 of the Town Council Act, which stated that the town council may impose charges for “social and communal functions” conducted in “common property in its town”, such as “variety shows, mini fairs, carnivals and book fairs in void decks, open spaces and precinct pavilions”, with no mention of trade fairs.

The prosecution once again objected to the points raised by Mr Low, saying that the documents Mr Low referred to does not dispute the fact that the event held at the town council is a temporary fair and the fair was held without a permit.

The judge reserved his judgement on whether Mr Low’s question is relevant to the case and adjourned the hearing due to time constraint. The next hearing will be held in the state court on Wednesday.