High Court strikes out Leong Sze Hian’s counterclaim against PM Lee’s suit, citing “no reasonable cause of action”

The Singapore High Court has struck out veteran blogger Leong Sze Hian’s counterclaim against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation suit, citing Mr Leong’s failure to disclose a “reasonable cause of action” in his counterclaim.

Justice Aedit Abdullah, in delivering his judgement in Lee Hsien Loong v Leong Sze Hian [2019] SGHC 66 on 12 Feb, cited the Court of Appeal’s decision in Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd v Management Corporation Strata Title Plan No 301 [2018] 2 SLR 866, which “rejected the tort of abuse of process as a recognised cause of action”.

The point was made based on Mr Lee’s defence against Mr Leong’s counterclaim, filed on 9 Jan this year, which argued that Mr Leong “did not disclose a reasonable cause of action”.

Citing Mr Lee’s submission, Aedit J said: “A ‘reasonable cause of action’ is one that has ‘some chance of success when only the allegations in the pleading are considered’.

“A claim based on a cause of action that is not recognised at law will be struck out for disclosing no reasonable cause of action.

“Accordingly, as the defendant’s counterclaim discloses no recognised [emphasis by Aedit J] cause of action [in the law], let alone a reasonable one, it should be struck out,” reasoned the Judge.

Citing the Court of Appeal’s decision in Lee Tat, Aedit J elaborated that should he allow Mr Leong’s claim on the grounds of tort of abuse of process, it would result in:

a) the undermining of “the principle of finality in the law, by encouraging unnecessary satellite litigation and prolonging disputes”;

b) the opening of “the floodgates of litigation”; and

c) the creation of “a chilling effect on regular litigation”.

Aedit J had also rejected Mr Leong’s argument to re-evaluate the Court of Appeal’s position in Lee Tat regarding the existence of the tort of abuse of process in Singapore law, due to the exceptional nature of the defamation suit, which involves the alleged “abuse of a public function” on Mr Lee’s part for the purpose of “restraining freedom of expression in the private sphere”.

Aedit J went on to cite part of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Lee Tat:

[161] … [W]e do not recognise the tort of abuse of process in Singapore … there are ample legal mechanisms within the existing rules of civil procedure that afford innocent parties adequate legal remedies in the event that there is indeed an abuse of process by the party concerned on the other side. For this reason alone, it is clear that the appeal on this particular issue must fail simply because … [the appellant’s] claim cannot even take off since the legal basis upon which it premises that claim does not exist. [emphasis in original]

“I am satisfied that the Court of Appeal’s decision in Lee Tat is binding on me and that the doctrine of stare decisis [the doctrine of precedent, or following previous decisions from similar cases in the past] applies. Lee Tat precludes the defendant’s counterclaim from succeeding,” said the Judge.

While noting that Mr Leong argued that the Court of Appeal’s recognition of the tort of malicious prosecution ought to be applied to the tort of abuse of process, given that both serve to “similarly regulate public functions of powers”, Aedit J maintained that he does “not see anything in the Court of Appeal’s judgement which leaves room for the tort of abuse process to be recognised as a possible control” against “the misuse of public functions or powers”.

“The Court of Appeal’s reasoning clearly excludes any such possible approach,” said the Judge.

PM Lee’s defamation suit against Mr Leong sparked by “false and baseless” The Coverage article

The present case arose out of Mr Leong’s sharing of an article by “Malaysian-based social news network” The Coverage on his personal Facebook Timeline, titled “Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB’s Key Investigation Target – Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements with Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering”.

The article alleged that Mr Lee had entered “several unfair agreements” with Mr Najib, who was the Malaysian Prime Minister at the time the deals purportedly took place, “including the agreement to build the Singapore-Malaysia High Speed Rail”, according to court documents.

Mr Leong, who had shared the article on 7 Nov last year, did not include any accompanying text alongside the article.

Prior to his removal of the post on 10 Nov after receiving a notice from the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) on 9 Nov, the court noted that Mr Leong’s article had garnered “22 ‘reactions’, five ‘comments’, and 18 ‘shares'”.

Subsequently, a writ of summons was filed by Mr Lee against Mr Leong on 20 Nov for defamation, on the grounds that the offending article created the “false and baseless” impression that Mr Lee had misused his position as Prime Minister to assist Mr Najib’s money laundering activities in relation to 1MDB’s funds, and subsequently insinuated that Mr Lee was “complicit in criminal activity” relating to the Malaysian state fund.

In response, Mr Leong filed his defence and counterclaim against Mr Lee’s suit on 26 Dec, citing Mr Lee’s “abuse” of the judicial process as his “relevant cause of action”.

However, Mr Lee filed a defence against Mr Leong’s counterclaim on 9 Jan this year, stating that the latter “did not disclose a reasonable cause of action”.