Former domestic worker Parti Liyani, who was acquitted of theft charges related to ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong’s belongings in Sep last year, has become the first individual to seek compensation under Section 359(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) against the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) for “frivolous or vexatious” prosecution.
Ms Parti was accused of stealing items totalling S$50,000 from Mr Liew — her former employer — and his family members. Her case went to trial and she was found guilty by District Judge Olivia Low, who sentenced Ms Parti to 26 months of jail in March 2019.
In clearing Ms Parti of her theft charges, Justice Chan Seng Onn in a written judgement observed that the prosecution had failed to demonstrate that there was no improper motive by the senior Liew and his son Karl in making the police report against Ms Parti.
This is particularly given that the report was made “just two days” after she made an expressed threat to alert the MOM about her illegal deployment to the latter’s residence and office, said the judge.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal argued in written submissions that Ms Parti’s arguments were “woefully short of showing that the decision to prosecute was frivolous or vexatious”.
The threshold test in proving whether the decision to prosecute Ms Parti was “frivolous or vexatious” is extremely high, as seen in the wording of Section 359(3) of the CPC as well as the positions stated in case law and Parliamentary debates on the matter, he said.
“Prosecutors should not be unduly inhibited, deterred or distracted from the fair and competent discharge of their duties by fears of court-ordered compensation and excessive judicial interference,” he said.
Citing the constitutional rights of the Public Prosecutor before the High Court on Friday (16 Apr), Singapore Management University School of Law assistant professor, Benjamin Joshua Ong, struggled to understand what the AGC meant by the fear of allowing public prosecutors to be sued, as such lawsuits will not prevent the Attorney General from carrying out his duties to initiate prosecutions.
Prof Ong is an amicus curiae in the immediate case, namely a party unrelated to a case but who is authorised by the court to offer information or advice on issues raised in the case.
In response to Prof Ong’s point about Public Prosecutors having nothing to fear about lawsuits as such lawsuits will not hamper their ability to conduct their duties, Justice Chan remarked: “If they do their job, they have nothing to fear.”
He further expanded on his inability to understand the DPP’s position by noting that even if the AGC were to make payment to all the cases at S$10,000 each, it would only be 3 per cent of AGC’s expenditure.
It was agreed that the compensation granted under legislation covers any kind of damages such as emotional trauma.
Prof Ong opined that the wording “the prosecution” ought to entail the conduct and process of prosecution and not just the commencement of prosecution.
If the legislation had been intended to be confined to a narrow definition, it would have been worded so as it did in other parts of the Act.
Justice Chan asked if it would mean one cannot claim damages for a hypothetical case of a prosecutor whose work is sloppy or just incompetent should malice be an essential factor for Section 359(3) of the CPC.
The DPP said yes, as the legislative intent was not to change the bar, quoting Law Minister K Shanmugam in a debate back in 2008.
However, it was earlier highlighted by Prof Ong that the debate was held prior to the amendment in 2010 and therefore should not be used to reflect Parliament’s intent of the amendment.
Ms Parti’s lawyer, Anil Balchandani rejected the position that proving malice is required in seeking compensation under Section 359(3) of the CPC.
“What the prosecution is attempting to have this court decide upon when they say malice should be included in the test, is allowing the prosecution two bites of the cherry, one in the criminal court and two, in the civil court,” he said.
DPP Faizal, in calling for Ms Parti’s application to be dismissed, submitted that it was essential to prove whether there was “dishonesty or malice” on the prosecution’s end, Mr Faizal added.
Testimonies from members of the Liew family as well as Ms Parti’s own admission of taking certain items without consent were among the factors that provided sufficient justification to prosecute her, said the DPP.
Such factors made the decision to prosecute “not obviously unsustainable or wrong”, he argued.
According to court documents, Ms Parti had quantified her losses at S$73,100.
This encompasses S$37,500 in foregone salary, pay increments and “hong bao”, and S$29,400 for lodging provided by non-governmental group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).
If the court is satisfied that there was “frivolous or vexatious prosecution” in Ms Parti’s case, the court may order a compensation sum of up to S$10,000.
Background on Parti Liyani’s case
Ms Parti was convicted in Mar 2019 of stealing items belonging to the senior Liew and his family — his son Karl Liew in particular. Ms Parti’s employment was abruptly terminated on 28 Oct 2016.
Mr Liew had asked Mr Karl to oversee Ms Parti’s termination and repatriation process to Indonesia, as the former was abroad at the time.
Prior to being sent back to her home country, Ms Parti was given only three hours to pack her belongings despite having worked for the family for almost nine years.
Mr Liew subsequently reported the purported theft on 30 October the same year after returning to Singapore.
Less than two months later, Ms Parti was arrested at Changi Airport on 2 December upon her return to Singapore.
Ms Parti was charged with stealing items totalling S$50,000.
The amount, however, was reduced to S$34,000 when District Judge Olivia Low removed several items from the charge sheet and reduced the estimated value of certain items, such as knocking down the value of a damaged Gerald Genta watched from S$25,000 to S$10,000.
Judge Low sentenced Ms Parti to two years and two months of jail after removing items from and reducing value on the allegedly stolen items that Mr Anil had successfully disproved in the State Courts hearing.
The prosecution originally sought a three-year jail sentence.
Ms Parti then filed an appeal against the conviction which was heard by Justice Chan Seng Onn.
After three days of hearings between Nov 2019 to August last year, Justice Chan on 4 Sep 2020 ultimately overturned the conviction from the lower court as he finds them unsafe.
In allowing Ms Parti’s appeal against her conviction and jail sentence of two years and two months, the High Court branded the Liew family as having “improper motives” against Ms Parti.
The “improper motives” revolved around Mr Liew and his son Karl Liew’s plans to lodge a police report against her to stop her from notifying MOM regarding the cleaning work she was made to do at Mr Karl’s home at 39 Chancery Lane and his office at Killiney Road.