Hougang resident spared from bearing legal costs

No order of costs will be made against the Hougang resident who had sought a court declaration on the Singapore’s Prime Minister’s power to call for by-elections.
 
In his judgment on Friday, High Court Justice Philip Pillai noted that the resident, Vellama Marie Muthu, had no private interest in her constitutional challenge and had instead made her application to the court through in the interest of the public at large.
 
Vellama, through her lawyer M Ravi, earlier this year applied for a declaration that the Prime Minister does not have “unfettered discretion” in determining when to hold by-elections.
 
The High Court judge, however, ruled against her in August, concluding that “there is no requirement” in Singapore’s constitution to call elections to fill elected Member of Parliament (MP) vacancies, and therefore no prescribed time such elections must be called.
 
In an October hearing this year, the Attorney General represented by senior counsel David Chong pressed for legal costs of $10,000 to be ordered against the 42-year old part-time cleaner.
 
Acknowledging the “unusual circumstances” of the case, Pillai said his ruling did hold that "where a matter raises a legal question of genuine public concern, it may be inappropriate to make a cost order against the applicant even where the judicial review is unsuccessful”.
 
Vellama had won two out of four applications during her judicial review.
 
Bridget Welsh, associate professor in political science at Singapore Management University (SMU), applauded the decision.
 
"This a fair and just decision. The judiciary has spoken for the people and checked the unfair burden and inappropriate demand to pay $10,000 called from a person involved in physical labor. From the onset, the demand was excessive."
 
On how this would impact future similar cases, Welsh said that "this decision has the potential to level the playing field and make way for cases that are in the public interest".

Eugene Tan, assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU), agrees with Welsh.

"It’s a decision to be welcomed given the history of this specific matter involving constitutional law litigation," he said.

However, Tan pointed out that this case should not be taken to mean that an order for costs will not be made in every case of a citizen bringing a constitutional law lawsuit against the state represented by the AG).

"The judge's decision turns on the specific circumstances of the case...It suggests that an ordinary citizen concerned with whether the state is giving the appropriate latitude to constitutional rights, especially fundamental liberties (found in Part IV of the Constitution), should not be overly concerned about having to bear the costs in the cause if the suit fails so long as the case involved public law issues of general importance and that the applicant did not have a private interest in the case."

"I don’t see it as opening the floodgates to unbridled constitutional litigation," he added.
 
Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore, Vellama said, “I am extremely elated to know that I've got this protection from the court… It's important that ordinary people don't bottle up their frustrations in their hearts but they must bring these issues out to society through the courts."
 
However, the sole breadwinner added that she is facing financial difficulties. “I may need some public support to continue this effort to the Court of Appeal on behalf of the public due to the expense of filing fees which are accumulating and anticipated to reach about $6000."

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