The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) has indicated that it has “no objections to being joined as a party” in the case brought by blogger Ms Han Hui Hui involving a statutory board.
Ms Han is being sued by the Council of Private Education (CPE) for libel with regards to two emails Ms Han had sent to various parties alleging impropriety on the part of CPE corporate communications manager Andy Ong.
In April, Ms Han applied to the courts to declare that since the CPE is a public and statutory body, it cannot sue for libel. She also claimed her legal right to freedom of speech under Article 14 of the Constitution.
At the pre-trial conference on 8 May, the court’s senior assistant registrar instructed CPE’s lawyers, Allen and Gledhill (A&G), to enquire with the AGC if it wished to be joined in the proceedings.
The AGC replied to A&G on 16 May that it had no objection to this. However, the AGC said it did “not necessarily agree” with the CPE’s position on two points, namely:
- That the Government’s presence before the Court is necessary.
- That it would be “just and convenient” to determine the questions arising from the case, with the Government.
At the heart of the case is the question of whether a public body, such as the CPE which is a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, can sue an individual for libel or defamation.
There is also the issue of whether it is fair for public bodies to use public funds for this, while individuals may not have such resources.
In her submissions to the Court, Ms Han said, “Because the actions and policies of public bodies have such high impact and stakes, it is unacceptable that they can silence criticism through fear in the form of litigation.
“My constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression protects the ordinary citizen against such potential abuse, and because public bodies have more than enough means to defend themselves and their reputations in the first place, my constitutional right should be upheld against being sued for defamation by any public body.”
There are more than 60 statutory boards in Singapore – which provides public service from housing to healthcare to education and the Arts - and the Court’s ruling will have impact on criticisms of these public bodies, and the rights to free expression of members of the public. If public bodies, funded by the public, can sue for defamation or libel, it might lead to a stifling of criticisms, or genuine grievances, especially from those who do not have such an amount of resources. In short, public bodies can use the threat of lawsuits to silence criticisms.
In the United Kingdom this year, both the Appeals Court and the UK government affirmed that “organs of government – both central and local – cannot sue for defamation.”
In a 1993 ruling, Lord Keith of Kinkel said, "It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism."
M Ravi, lawyer for Ms Han, said, “The fact that the government is intervening in this matter shows that the matter has a sufficient public interest. This reinforces our position that the CPE, being a public body, cannot bring an action for defamation.”
The pre-trial conference will take place on 29th May whereby the AGC will inform the Court that it wishes to be joined as a party in the case.