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Comments on the amendment to the Government Proceedings Act

On Monday at Parliament, MPs from the Workers' Party, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang took issue with Clause 9 in the Statues (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act 2016, which would see a change to Section 29(4) of the Government Proceedings Act (GPA).

The two MPs argued that the change would make it more prohibitive for individuals to enter into litigation against the Government, while Mr Low questioned if people would be intimidated by the costs that they do not know how much the court is going to decide.

Previously, the Act stated that: "In any such civil proceedings as are referred to in subsection (2) in which two legal officers appear as advocates and the court certifies for two counsel, costs shall be payable in respect of the services of both such legal officers."

Clause 9 replaces the section with: "In any civil proceedings mentioned in subsection (2), costs are payable in respect of the services of more than two legal officers if the court so certifies."

Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law defended the amendment and attempted to rebut the two MPs by saying,

"I've said it before, once. I've said it before, twice. And I will now say it again a third time: It is not the intention of the Government to be using costs to intimidate anyone," said the Senior Minister of State for Law.

"As I have indicated, when the Government has to defend a matter or pursue a matter, it will do so after having taken advice, doing so rationally, and doing so if it thinks it is the right course of action. That is the first thing when it comes to taken proceedings with respect to the amount of costs that the person may face, when a person brings proceedings against the Government, that person would, no doubt, be legally advised, and also have an indication of the amount of cost that would be incurred.

"And it should not be forgotten that if costs are to be awarded against that party, it does mean that that party, at the end of the day, ultimately failed against the Government, meaning that that case should not have been brought in the first place."

Below are the comments found in the Channel News Asia facebook thread for the matter.

Shinn Ng For those who think that this is not important and wonder why the 2 WP leaders go to the extend of questioning the rationale of the law, think again. It may affect you the next time you are in litigation with the government. Don't ever think that it will not happen to you. By the time it happens, you will start appreciating why the 2 WP leaders go to such extend to question the rationale of the law, but it may be too late.

Michael Liew Khong Let's not confuse the issues here. The reason why there should be a limit on the no. of counsel (and with that the legal cost) that the government can use is so that it will not end up being overly prohibitive and oppressive for ordinary citizens to sue the government should they suffer any injustice. This avenue must ALWAYS remain open for every citizen and we should not allow any amendment to be passed such that this avenue becomes closed, especially to the under privileged. Justice and equality form the basis and fundamental ideals of our pledge and our nation. So I'm glad the WP MPs are fighting hard for this basic right to be preserved and not compromised in any way.

Jee Me Wong Well its oft-said that a law suit is a contest of lies. But such amendments concern the commoner as much as the high networth individual or corporations. So an amendment is an amendment and law is law and it impact everyone, however remote is the possibility of an individual engaging a dozen lawyers and queens counsel.

Frank Young Indranee said: "... it should not be forgotten that if costs are to be awarded against that party, it does mean that that party, at the end of the day, ultimately failed against the Government, meaning that that case should not have been brought in the first place."

I stand firmly opposed to this statement. We all know the court is a contest on which side has the better lawyer.

Joshua Ling Just my 2 cents, but to those who say this issue doesn't matter, the legislation in question is the Government Proceedings Act - the very Act which was found to indemnify the SAF in the unfortunate accident involving Private Dominique Lee. One may merely speculate why this provision is being amended now.. but regardless, when you remove caps for costs in this case, it does add to the cost calculation of potential plaintiffs - who are often far more vulnerable than the government ever will be. There is never certainty in law and this amendment may be "prohibitive" in stopping claimants from even trying. In this sense, that may be a sad step back for the rule of law.

Valen Chen Tany Anybody can keep on saying it is white and not grey. It is a universal fact that the poor are always and will remain disadvantaged while the powerful and rich will prevail due to the structure on which our modern society is built upon. This is an undeniable truth no matter how much is being said.

Leng Leng Clara It is a red flag when such laws are passed and It is a legitimate query that will affect us. In time to come, there will be a situation where our properties will be bought over by the state at below market rate and we need to protect ourselves...for those short sighted people here, think for you children and beyond. Who pass laws that protects its government and disarm its people's rights To raise any injustice against the government? I am truly disappointed that people in the justice system find it appropriate...were they sworn in to uphold justice and to serve its people, not the party?

...some people here are very short sighted.....it means taking the legal rights from us and that is evil. A law passed to disarm citizens of a fair trial is unjust. A person in the justice system find that justifiable? Which other first world country does that?

Regina Lim This is an impt issue and it can affect everyone even common citizens and I believe the govt should come out to explain why such an amendment is needed in the first place? The cap on 2 counsels are there for a reason in the first place. Why is there a need to change?

It is not good enough to say it's not govt intention to use cost as a threat or prohibition because it certainly seems so especially from an individual perspective. Even with court discretion.

Perhaps the amendment should differentiate between local individuals & SMEs of certain size (limit to 2 counsels) versus big corporations &/or foreign bodies or individuals (more than 2 counsels)?

See Dick San Not to intimidate. But for deterrence effect. Psychologically, if you know the odds and probabilities, beyond your means then you won't even dare to speak up against or to act against, and thus so , government and its people, agencies will always be safe.

Aaron Loh Didn't really get why is there a need to amend the existing law. Honestly this really gives an intimidating feeling to the commoners.

Hussain Shamsuddin "And it should not be forgotten that if costs are to be awarded against that party, it does mean that that party, at the end of the day, ultimately failed against the Government, meaning that that case should not have been brought in the first place."

Isn't that extremely intimidating????

How would an aggrieved layman know for sure if he has grounds for seeking justice? Why then do we have the judiciary in the first place?? We might as well dispense with it all and let the law of the jungle rule.

Basker Rangachari Sad to see educated professionals including ACCA who don't understand the basic premise of the debate. The reason the current Act restricts costs reimbursement to 2 legal officers is simple -- why would the government need more than 2 lawyers to fight a private citizen who probably is self-representing? Imagine if your child died due to the negligence of govt hospitals or NS etc, would you like to sue the government only to find out they have gathered an army of 10 expensive lawyers to fight you back? The prospect that you might lose the case is bad enough... Now you can be made bankrupt for not being able to pay the legal costs of the 10 expensive lawyers.

Please netizens -- think before your type. Don't let your blind loyalty to any political party make you blind to a legitimate concern.

Elections are over already -- so it's not like the opposition is always wrong, and PAP is always right.

Before your type without thinking, Ask yourself -- would you respond the same way if Opposition had proposed this amendment in Parliament and PAP opposed it? Stop making every issue into a PAP vs Opposition -- it's not. Be more mature.