By K. C. Vijayan
A DECISION made by Singapore's highest court must be final, not 'almost final or conditionally final', said a High Court judge, giving his reasons for refusing to reopen a case settled last year.
The only exception: If not doing so would seriously diminish public confidence in the integrity of the courts and administration of justice, said Justice Choo Han Teck.
[So here's the exceptional circumstances spelt out by the Judge, as to when a case can be re-opended.]
He cited an example from Britain in 2000, where the highest court set aside its own decision as there had been an apparent bias on the part of one of the presiding judges.
But the suit brought by residents of Grange Heights was no such exception for the court to use its inherent power, said Justice Choo in a written judgment released on Tuesday.
The case had triggered the landmark poser as to whether Singapore's Court of Appeal could reopen its own case to be heard by a reconstituted court - either under powers provided by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act or under its own auspices.
Said Justice Choo: 'Each time a litigant files a challenge against the validity of the final judgment of the final court of law, the stability of the law and court is by that additional effort, corroded and undermined.'
[And here's the concern.]
The saga began when Grange Heights residents lost their 30-year-old right to an access path that led to their property, following a Court of Appeal decision last year.
The path runs through a Grange Road property owned by Lee Tat Development.
Through Senior Counsel Sundaresh Menon and a team of lawyers from Rajah & Tann, the residents asked that the decision be re-examined and the case re-heard.
Lee Tat's lawyers, Senior Counsel Tan Cheng Han and lawyers from Arfat Selvam Alliance, countered that a re-hearing was a no-go as the court's powers were defined by legislation which did not provide statutory powers for it to re-hear its own case.
Senior Counsel Menon argued that there had been a breach of natural justice because the Appeals Court had cited a 1991 English case to justify its reversal of the earlier decision, that had not been brought up by either party during the hearing.
[Here's the argument - that the Appeals Court independently cited a case not raised by and therefore with no opportunity for either party to address as to the relevance, validity, or applicability of the case. The defence could argue that since the plaintive had not raised the case, either the plaintive did not think the case was relevant, or that it was not applicable or that there were counter-arguments why it would not be applicable. But not having raised the case the defendent had no opportunity to address the specifics of the case as to relevance, materialness, and applicability. Instead the judges had cited the case themselves and summarily applied the principle and precedent. Therefore natural justice is not served as the defence had no opportunity to respond and repudiate the precedent. ]
He claimed the 2008 judgment would not have gone Lee Tat's way if counsel had been given the chance to address the court on the English case.
The issue was not about the merits of the case but about 'procedural fairness', he argued.
Justice Choo held that not all procedural wrongs would justify setting aside a final judgment.
'A court may not be able to hear every argument made by counsel, and sometimes arguments are summarily dismissed because they were absurd or outrageous.'
He pointed out that sometimes the courts might draw conclusions that had little to do with the lawyers' arguments.
'If counsel had the right to address the court on every thread of its reasoning, the act of judgment will become a long and tedious debate between court and counsel.'
Justice Choo said this would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.
'Decorum is an important part of the authority of the court,' he added.
[This is true. But it sounds so petty when spoken out loud.]
Also, it is not every case that a decision of the court made on reasons not addressed by the lawyers would, if appealed, be found to be wrong.
'Finality in a decision outweighs the individual interests of a particular litigant.'
[So does the court exists to serve justice or its own prestige and authority?]
Senior Counsel Menon said when contacted: 'We are studying the judgment on this important issue and are taking instructions from our clients on whether to file an appeal.'