By Teo Soh Lung
The intention of every plaintiff in a civil suit is to recover what he has lost. In the case of a defamation suit, he sues for compensation for loss of reputation in the eyes of third parties. This compensation may take the form of an apology and/or monetary payment. If a plaintiff demands monetary compensation, he is vindicated if he is awarded damages, which need not be a colossal sum but just a nominal sum.
Civil litigation in Singapore is expensive. Commencing a law suit in the High Court entails a minimum court fee of $500. An application for summary judgement costs $500 and every affidavit attracts a minimum fee of $50 with each page of an exhibit incurring another $2. In addition, electronic filing fees with service charge have to be paid.
Everyone is entitled to sue if he feels aggrieved by someone. And anyone sued can defend himself if he feels that he is wronged. The court where one seeks justice is open to all and judges and all the court staff are paid by taxpayers. Accessibility to the courts is guaranteed to all who have the money to pay the required fees set out in the Rules of Court and electronic filing charges.
But court fees are not the only costs that one should consider before commencing an action. Lawyers too have to be paid unless they offer their services pro bono or free. And lawyers’ fees do not come cheap in Singapore. A litigant has to pay the lawyer he engages and if he loses his claim, he has also to pay the lawyers of his opponents. As can be seen in the case of PM Lee Hsien Loong vs Roy Ngerng, the latter was ordered to pay $29,000 to PM Lee’s lawyers when they won the application for summary judgement. In addition, Roy Ngerng has also to pay S$6,000 for an unsuccessful application for the admission of a Queen’s Counsel.
I cannot recall anyone being ordered to pay such exorbitant costs for an unsuccessful application for admission of a Queen’s Counsel. In PM Lee’s case, both the Attorney General and the Law Society of Singapore objected to Roy Ngerng’s application. It is quite understandable for the Attorney General to object but for the Law Society to do so is pretty shameful. Its objection to the admission of Queen’s Counsel had contributed to Roy Ngerng being unrepresented in court. This however, may be a blessing in disguise.
Throughout the three day hearing (1 to 3 July), the Law Society did not send any representative to observe the hearing. While Ngerng’s case has distressed the international legal community and they have sent representatives to observe the hearing, the Law Society, having objected to the admission of his Queen’s Counsel, had adhered to the policy of the proverbial three monkeys – “hear not, see not and speak not”. It has kept a noticeable distance. Its lack of interest in what goes on in our courts and the local community is shocking. How can the Law Society fulfill its mission “to ensure access to justice for all” when it shows such apathy in what is going on in our courts? I suggest the Law Society re-examine its mission instead of bragging about its pro bono services.
Before a claim is filed in court, it is the lawyer’s duty to advise his client about the costs that he has to incur, the possibility of success and recovery of claim and costs from the person he sues. The client must know if it is worth his while to sue. Can the defendant pay if judgement is obtained? If not, why throw good money away?
Resorting to litigation is always the last resort and such action will only be taken if the client fully appreciates that in addition to the lawyer’s fees that he will incur, he may not be able to recover what he is awarded in the judgement because the defendant is not a person of means.
So what is the financial standing of the defendant in PM Lee Hsien Loong vs Roy Ngerng? I find the third day of the hearing intriguing. Davinder Singh SC in cross examining Roy Ngerng about his financial status, asked him about his trip to Norway. Roy had visited Norway for a Freedom of Speech conference. He asked how much money Roy Ngerng had raised from crowdfunding and what were his other sources of funding.
Roy Ngerng replied that he raised S$110,000 from crowdfunding. Pressed by Davinder Singh SC about who paid for his trip to Norway, Ngerng said the Media Legal Defence Initiative, a human rights organisation, had sponsored the trip and also donated about S$10,000. He then gave an account of how the total sum of S$120,000 was utilised – S$35,000 was paid to PM Lee’s lawyers, S$4000 for court and filing fees and the rest to his lawyers. He also dipped into his savings to pay these expenses.
I thought when Davinder Singh SC proceeded on this line of cross examination, he had information about more funding from abroad. But that was not the case.
Can Roy Ngerng satisfy PM Lee Hsien Loong’s claim for damages and aggravated damages if awarded, when all the funds he has including his savings have been spent? According to Davinder Singh SC, the amount of damages would range between S$100,000 and S$400,000.
Will Justice Lee Seiu Kin be persuaded by the argument put forward by the International Commission of Jurists that the award of damages should not be so large so as to have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech? Will he award nominal damages which in some jurisdictions can be a token sum of about $1?
And what about costs? If a one hour hearing on the admission of a Queen’s Counsel costs S$6,000 and an application for summary judgement costs S$29,000, how about the costs for a three day hearing in open court and another day for submissions?
Written submissions will be filed by parties by the end of August. What will be the final amount of damages and costs be? Will Roy Ngerng, the only son of a chai tau kuay (carrot cake) hawker who lost his job as a health care worker because of the law suit filed by PM Lee Hsien Loong, be able to pay the damages and costs that will ultimately be awarded?
In the past, politicians like JB Jeyaretnam, Dr Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin have all been bankrupted because they were not able to raise the money to pay the Prime Minister and other ministers. Roy Ngerng, incidentally is the first non-politician to be sued by the Prime Minister. I don’t know. The evidence disclosed has so far shown Roy Ngerng to be a man without means. He may have no choice but to follow the footsteps of bankrupted politicians.
This article first appeared on Function 8’s Facebook page.