Man ordered to pay more in legal costs than damages awarded for wrongful imprisonment

Man ordered to pay more in legal costs than damages awarded for wrongful imprisonment

Mah Kiat Seng, who was wrongfully arrested and jailed in 2017 on the basis of mental illness, has been ordered to pay the Attorney-General (AG) approximately S$28,860 in net legal costs, which is S$8,860 out of his own pocket when factoring the damage compensation of S$20,000 awarded to him.

This comes after the AG was awarded costs of S$48,000 over the case, while Mah was given only S$19,320.

Mah’s wrongful arrest and imprisonment occurred in 2017 after a police officer, Staff Sergeant Mohamed Rosli Mohamed, claimed that he had acted on the belief that Mah was a danger to others due to mental disorder. Mah was detained for less than a day before being released.

Following the incident, Mah sued the SPF, along with two police officers: SSG Rosli, who took him into custody; and SSG Tan Thiam Chin Lawrence, who interacted with Mr Mah at a police lock-up.

Mah had claimed that he was wrongly apprehended and hence falsely imprisoned as a result of SSG Rosli’s lies that Mah had been mumbling or speaking to himself, told the officer he had obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”) and spat into a plastic bag.

He also claims that he suffered injury at the hands of SSG Tan at the lock-up.

Mah represented himself in court against the learned counsels from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), leading to a prolonged legal battle that lasted five years.

The case eventually went to the High Court in August and October last year, where Mah was awarded S$20,000 in damages for his wrongful imprisonment.

In his judgment on costs, Justice Philip Jeyaretnam explained that Mah’s case could have been tried in a Magistrate’s Court, where costs are typically lower than in the High Court.

Additionally, since Mah represented himself, he was not entitled to the same compensation for legal representation as a litigant who hired a lawyer because of the principle that litigants must not profit from the costs of legal proceedings.

On the other hand, the AG had sought S$35,000 in costs for its successful defence of SSG Tan and another S$50,000 for its partially successful defence of the Singapore Police Force.

Justice Jeyaretnam explained that he had used the cost guidelines applying to High Court matters to assess the AG’s costs.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament in February that the government had concerns about the High Court’s ruling that Mah was wrongfully arrested and imprisoned, in response to questions filed by Members of Parliament regarding the judgment.

The Minister said the police took “a different view” from the courts and said the Ministry of Home Affairs was considering whether to seek permission to challenge the court’s decision or enact laws to address any gaps “between policy intent and the position in law.”

However, the Minister omitted the fact that the judgment was made based on the revelation of the actual events which deferred from the testimonies of the police officers based on video footage.

Justice Jeyaretnam wrote in his judgment,  “I find on a balance of probabilities that Rosli, knowing that he had no power to arrest Mah for the matter complained of because it was not an arrestable offence, took a dislike to Mah for his apparently disrespectful conduct, including not handing his identity card directly to him. This is what motivated him to come up with the assertions that Mah was mumbling to himself and spat into a plastic bag.”

The judge dismissed Mah’s second claim that he was punched in his abdomen by SSG Tan when he was apprehended, having reviewed the body-worn camera footage of the apprehension and heard the testimony of Mah as well as those officers who apprehended him.

The judge, however, noted that this does not mean that Mah did not feel discomfort or pain, including in his abdomen, and may have attributed this wrongly to a punch rather than simply to his being forcibly restrained in a manner that would have been lawful had the apprehension itself been lawful.

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