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Procedural amendments of laws against “vexatious litigants” redundant, says human rights lawyer

International Human Rights lawyer M. Ravi has voiced his disagreement with the Ministry of Law's proposal to impose more stringent procedures in granting courts greater authority in controlling "vexatious" proceedings.

"Vexatious" proceedings refer to proceedings that are brought upon in court without sufficient grounds for winning, usually to cause annoyance to the defendant.

In a release on the proposed amendments to the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (SCJA) on 2 July, the Ministry informed that the changes would allow the High Court or the Court of Appeal to act on its own to restrain a vexatious litigant, to varying degrees.

M. Ravi commented on the Ministry's reasoning behind the proposal in a Facebook post dated 3 July, stating that "there are already sufficient safeguards in place", and that "a handful of possibly frivolous cases in a year do not warrant such changes".

He added that within the context of a litigious society, such "vexatious proceedings" would lead to a "wastage of public resources and courts' time". 

However, he believes that Singaporeans are generally not very litigious.

Screenshot from M. Ravi's Facebook regarding the issue.

In contrast, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan stated that "When the individual cannot win the case on merit, sometimes he looks at various methods including judicial review", often at the expense of public and judicial resources.

He said it could amount to an abuse of court processes and inappropriate use of the court's time and public resources, according to The Straits Times.

In Lai Swee Lin Linda v Attorney-General [2016] SGCA 54, the appellant was prohibited "from instituting any further legal proceedings, as well as continuing existing legal proceedings in relation to those claims without the leave of the High Court" under s.74 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, in a judgement summary dated 5 September 2016.

Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash said that the order was made to "protect" litigants from themselves.

"If such an order is not made, the vexatious litigant, having lost sight of rationality or reality and being armed with an aggravated sense of injustice about his case, is very likely to persist indefinitely in instituting legal proceedings." 

It is understood that the appellant "has persisted in pursuing her Claims for the past 16 years" as stated in the judgement summary.

The proposed changes to the SCJA would give the High Court the authority to order the halt of further filing of documents if it found that doing so would be "vexatious" as defined in the aforementioned case.

Should the proposed amendments be passed, the Court of Appeal will have the power to "dismiss, on its own motion, appeals or applications in cases where the matter relates to an issue it has already decided on, or where it lacks jurisdiction to hear the matter", according to The Straits Times.

The possibility of conducting civil hearings via video conference or other electronic means is also among some of the other changes proposed in the public consultation. 

The ministry also intends to strengthen procedures for Court of Appeal cases.

As a measure, it is looking into allowing appeals in civil matters from the State Courts to be brought directly to the Court of Appeal in situations where a ruling is required urgently.

In such cases, permission of the Court of Appeal will be needed, and it must involve points of law of general public importance.

However, M. Ravi argued against the strict reasoning, saying that "citizens should be able to bring up their cases with ease and without hesitation" in the event that a new legal argument or ground arises, particularly in a democratic society.

He adds that "it is in the public interest to do so".

However, he agrees with the proposal related to using technological means as a legitimate medium through which civil hearings can be conducted, stating that "these changes are progressive".

"Bundling up progressive changes with the one regressive change will cause an overall sink," he concluded overall. "Hopefully the legal community will speak up and provide open and transparent feedback."