Case Summaries

Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd v Management Corporation Strata Title Plan No 301 [2018] SGCA 50

SUPREME COURT OF SINGAPORE

17 August 2018

Case summary

Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd v Management Corporation Strata Title Plan No 301
[2018] SGCA 50
Civil Appeal No 117 of 2017

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Decision of the Court of Appeal (delivered by Justice Andrew Phang Boon Leong):

The CoA holds that the tort of malicious prosecution should not be extended to civil proceedings generally, that there is no tort of abuse of process, and that the appellant is estopped by an overruled CoA decision from bringing a claim in trespass.

Background

  1. This appeal is about the consequences of a longstanding legal dispute over whether the residents of a condominium development called Grange Heights had a right of way over a strip of land to access a road in a prime district in the city. In 2005, the Court of Appeal held that they had such a right of way. But in 2008, the Court of Appeal overruled its 2005 decision, holding that any such right of way had been extinguished by law in 1976 when the two adjoining plots of land on which Grange Heights was built (Lots 111-34 and 561) were amalgamated. In the proceedings from which this appeal arose, the owners of the strip of land, Lee Tat Development Pte Ltd (“Lee Tat”), sued the management corporation of Grange Heights (“the MCST”), claiming damages for the MCST’s (a) malicious prosecution of two previous actions to assert the right of way; (b) abuse of the court’s process, by asserting that right in four previous actions; (c) malicious expression of the falsehood that it possessed that right, on two occasions; and (d) trespass on Lee Tat’s property, by using the strip of land until the 2008 decision was handed down in December that year.

  2. Today, for the reasons summarised below, the Court of Appeal upholds the High Court’s decision to dismiss all four claims. In particular, the Court declines Lee Tat’s invitation to extend the tort of malicious prosecution to civil proceedings generally, thus electing not to follow two recent decisions of the UK Supreme Court and the UK Judicial Committee of the Privy Council respectively, both decisions notably being the result of a sharply divided coram. The Court also declines to recognise the tort of abuse of process.

    Malicious prosecution

  3. The Court holds that although a party is entitled to recover damages for the malicious prosecution of criminal proceedings against him, he is not entitled to recover damages for the malicious prosecution of civil claims against him, except in very limited and defined categories of cases which are not applicable to the present case. This is for reasons of principle and policy. ( [85] and [128])

  4. In terms of principle, essential differences between criminal and civil proceedings justify maintaining the distinction as to whether either is capable of giving rise to claims for malicious prosecution. In particular, the public character and the generally harsher consequences of criminal proceedings undergird the law’s recognition that those who suffer damage at the hands of prosecutors who abuse their function for malicious reasons deserve a remedy. Furthermore, extending the tort to civil proceedings generally is inconsistent with the principle that malice is generally irrelevant in the context of tort law, which assumes that if an act is lawful, a person has the right to do it despite any ill motives on his part. Finally, extending the tort that way would introduce uncertainty into cognate areas of law, such as the law of privilege. ([86]–[103])

  5. In terms of policy, extending the tort would undermine the principle of finality in the law by encouraging needless satellite litigation of the kind exemplified by the present case. It would also have a chilling effect on regular litigation by deterring genuine claimants from invoking the court’s jurisdiction. It would also be incompatible with an increasing shift towards integrating mediation as a method of dispute resolution into the fabric of our legal system. Finally, there exist mechanisms in the current rules of civil procedure for bringing to a prompt and early end claims that would otherwise constitute malicious prosecutions. ( [104]–[127])

    Abuse of process

  6. The Court considers that the torts of abuse of process and malicious prosecution are similar not only as to their elements but also as to their underlying rationale. Accordingly, the policy reasons leading the Court not to extend the latter to civil proceedings also compel the Court not to recognise the former. In particular, recognising the tort of abuse of process would undermine the principle of finality. Although a claim in the tort need not be brought only after conclusion of the proceedings which are alleged to be abusive, such a claim can still be brought many years after, as has been done in the present case. Recognising the tort would also create a chilling effect for genuine litigants. Finally, there are existing rules of civil procedure which deal precisely with various aspects of abuse of process of the court. ( [150]–[161])

    Malicious falsehood

  7. The first statement Lee Tat claims is a malicious falsehood asserts that “the estate’s owners had the right to use the road forever – for walking as well as for driving” and that “the residents could not give up the right to access because it was a valuable piece of land”. The second asserts that Grange Heights enjoyed “[c]onvenient access from Grange Road”. The Court holds that both statements were not malicious falsehoods because they were not made with malice. There was no evidence that they were made with a dominant or improper intention to injure Lee Tat. Further, at the time the statements were made, in 1997 and 2007 respectively, there were judicial pronouncements stating or suggesting that Grange Heights residents had a right of way over the strip of land. This militates against any suggestion that the MCST could not have had an honest belief in the truth of the statements, or that the MCST made the statements with reckless disregard as to their truth. ( [181]–[185])

    Trespass

  8. Lee Tat’s claim in trespass is limited to the period between December 2006 and December 2008 as a result of the applicable limitation period. This was the period between (a) when time started to run for limitation purposes, which was during the period when the Court’s 2005 decision in the MCST’s favour prevailed; and (b) the Court’s 2008 decision which found that the MCST had no right of way over the strip of land. The Court holds that there are two reasons why Lee Tat is estopped from pursuing its claim in trespass in respect of this period. ([186] and [195])

  9. The first reason is as follows. In 2008, the Court set aside its 2005 decision on the basis that in that decision, it had wrongly held that one of its previous decisions in this litigation, handed down in 1992, had determined the issue whether the right of way, which was granted for the benefit of only Lot 111-34, extended to Lot 561. In fact, the 1992 decision made no such determination. However, in setting aside the 2005 decision, the Court in 2008 had impermissibly sidestepped the truly determinative finding in the 2005 decision, namely, that Lee Tat was estopped from disputing the MCST’s right of way. Even if the Court in the 2005 decision had erred in so finding, that erroneous decision should have been given effect because of the principle of finality. Thus, the Court in 2008 was wrong to have set aside the 2005 decision, as had been recognised in obiter dicta in an unrelated 2015 decision of the Court, The Royal Bank of Scotland NV (formerly known as ABN Amro Bank NV) and others v TT International Ltd (nTan Corporation Advisory Pte Ltd and others, other parties) and another appeal [2015] 5 SLR 1104. However, although the Court had erred in setting aside the 2005 decision in its 2008 decision, the latter decision had to be given final effect. That said, there was no reason for the Court now to perpetuate this error by allowing Lee Tat to reach back in time to establish a claim in trespass. ( [196])

  10. Second, the 2005 decision enjoys a measure of finality that enables the MCST now to rely on it as representing the definitive authority on the parties’ rights from the period of December 2006 to December 2008. The fact is that the Court is now faced with two contradictory but final decisions of an apex court, namely, its 2005 decision and its 2008 decision, and the question is which should be given effect as between Lee Tat and the MCST during that period. The answer has to be the 2005 decision because it was the only decision upon which the parties during that period could have ordered their affairs. ([197]–[203])

  11. Finally, the Court holds that Lee Tat is unable to escape the issue estoppel arising from the 2005 decision. It is unable to show that the MCST obtained that decision by actual fraud. The only other recognised exception to issue estoppel is what is known as the Arnold exception, which enables a decided issue to be reargued if, among other things, there is no attempt to claw back rights or benefits that have accrued pursuant to the decision. However, clawing back benefits that have accrued pursuant to the 2005 decision is precisely what Lee Tat is attempting to do here. ( [204]–[208])

    This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court. All numbers in bold font and square brackets refer to the corresponding paragraph numbers in the Court’s judgment.

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