Making state answerable for rulings would hurt judicial independence: Court of Appeal
June 24, 2015
SINGAPORE — Should a disgruntled litigant aggrieved by court decisions be entitled to sue the Government for damages?
This question was put before the Court of Appeal in a rare case of a man involved in two civil suits against the Government, which came before the apex court after it was earlier dismissed by the High Court.
The appeals were dismissed, with the court ruling that the state should not be liable for judicial acts, over which it has no control or influence.
In the grounds of decision released today (June 24), the Court of Three Judges — comprising Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang, and Justice Tay Yong Kwang — reiterated the principles of immunity of judges and the state.
Judicial independence is one of the foundational pillars of Singapore’s Constitution and “must not be shaken”.
“Proper functioning of the judicial system demands that the judiciary is not harassed by frivolous claims, and that finality in the judicial process is not undermined by collateral attacks against the judiciary,” the judges wrote. Rendering the state liable in judicial decisions would undermine the judiciary’s independence as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The two suits were filed in January last year. The man behind the suits had been unhappy by court decisions against him in two separate cases — one over the custody of his child and the other involving a dispute between his company Ho Pak Kim Realty Co and a developer.
Having exhausted all rights of appeal, the man and Ho Pak Kim Realty decided to sue the Government. When their suits were struck out, they appealed the decision. The High Court judge who heard these appeals found it “obvious” that there was no reasonable grounds for action against the Government. Just as judges were immune from suits in relation to the exercise of their judicial power, the Government was likewise immune in relation to judicial acts, the judge ruled.
Setting out their reasons for upholding the High Court decision, the three judges said as this was the first time that the issue of state liability for judicial acts was before the court, “we shall briefly explore the principles which form the basis for our decision”.
Judicial immunity is an ancient concept entrenched in the common law, which holds that a judge cannot be held liable for his words or action executed in a jurisdiction which belongs to him. Apart from protecting the judicial process to maintain the independence of the judiciary, immunity is also key to “finality”. “An aggrieved litigant who has exhausted his right of appeal should not be allowed to commence actions against judges and judicial officers in an attempt to re-litigate issues that have already been conclusively decided,” they said.
While accountability and remedies for wrongs should be considered, the judges noted genuine cases of judicial misconduct are “few and far between” and there are methods of recourse like appeals or the re-hearing of cases.
While the Government may be liable for the acts of its public officers, the law provides for immunity in relation to judicial acts.
In discharging the judicial responsibilities vested in him, a judge is not acting on behalf of the Government but for the common good of the society, and the Government “does not and should not” interfere with a judge’s performance. “To this end, the Government should not be liable for the acts of the judiciary,” they added.