Case Summaries

Ong Wui Teck v The Attorney-General [2020] SGCA 17

SUPREME COURT OF SINGAPORE

24 March 2020

Case summary

Ong Wui Teck v The Attorney-General
[2020] SGCA 17
Civil Appeal Nos 33 and 112 of 2019

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Decision of the Court of Appeal (delivered by Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash):

Outcome: CoA upholds the appellant’s conviction and sentence on scandalising contempt and contempt in the face of the Court.

Pertinent and significant points of the judgment

  • A recusal application is not carte blanche or a “get out of jail free” card for an applicant to say what he pleases without any consequence. Any allegation made by an applicant in a recusal application must be backed by some evidence, or at the minimum, supported by rational basis. An applicant cannot exploit a recusal application as an opportunity to engage in sarcasm or to violently abuse or ridicule a judge. Criticisms coloured to the extent that they attract the law of contempt will not be protected under the realm of recusal: at [29].

Introduction

1 These appeals arose out of a court finding that Mr Ong Wui Teck, the appellant herein, was guilty of contempt of court in relation to statements made by him in two affidavits. These affidavits (“the OS 165 Affidavits”) were filed by the appellant in support of his recusal application in Originating Summons No 165 of 2016 (“OS 165”). In OS 165, the appellant had sought to disqualify Justice Woo Bih Li (“Woo J”) from hearing all actions relating to the estate of the appellant’s mother. In the OS 165 Affidavits, the appellant had made a number of allegations of bias, dishonesty and impropriety against Woo J (“the Allegations”). The Allegations led the Attorney-General, the respondent in these appeals, to apply for an order of committal against the appellant for contempt of court.

Background to the appeal

2 The appellant was the administrator of the estates of his father (“the Father’s Estate”) and of his mother (“the Mother’s Estate”). Due to his appointment, he was involved in various disputes with his sister (“the Sister”) in Suit No 385 of 2011 (“Suit 385”) concerning the Father’s Estate. These disputes were adjudicated by Woo J, who ordered an inquiry to determine the net total value of the Father’s Estate for distribution to the beneficiaries (“the Inquiry”). Woo J fixed costs of Suit 385 at $10,000 in favour of the sister (“the Suit 385 Costs Order”).

3 The Inquiry was conducted by an Assistant Registrar (“the AR”). The AR found that the Father’s Estate had a positive value. The appellant was granted an extension of time to appeal out of time against the AR’s decision in the Inquiry and filed his appeal. The Sister in turn appealed against the grant of an extension of time to the appellant. These appeals are referred to as “the Registrar’s Appeals”. The Registrar’s Appeals were heard before Woo J who held that the appellant should not have been granted an extension of time. The recital to an order of court in the Registrar’s Appeals (“the Order of Court”) erroneously identified the Sister as the appellant in the appeal. The appellant appealed against Woo J’s findings but his appeals were struck out by this Court. This meant that the appellant could no longer dispute the findings made in the Inquiry.

4 In 2013, the Sister sought a revocation of the appellant’s appointment as the executor of the Mother’s Estate. The Sister’s application in the District Court was dismissed, and she appealed to the High Court by District Court Appeal No 21 of 2015 (“DCA 21”). The appellant then filed Originating Summons No 11 of 2016 (“OS 11”) to, inter alia, compel the Sister to apply for an extension of time to serve the appeal documents in DCA 21 on him. The appellant and the Sister’s counsel were informed by an Assistant Registrar that Woo J was scheduled to hear DCA 21 and OS 11.

5 The appellant then applied in OS 165 to disqualify Woo J from hearing all actions relating to the Mother’s Estate. On 4 March 2016, Woo J heard OS 165 and, while he found that the appellant’s allegations of bias were baseless, he recused himself as he intended to lodge a formal complaint against the appellant for contempt.

6 The High Court Judge (“the Judge”) found the appellant guilty of scandalising contempt and contempt in the face of the Court. The Judge sentenced the appellant to seven days’ imprisonment. The present appeals were lodged by the appellant against liability and sentence.

The court’s decision

7 The Allegations, which were allegations of bias, impropriety and dishonesty, impugn the qualities of judicial independence and impartiality. This undermined public confidence in the judiciary and its administration of justice: at [26].

8 A recusal application was not carte blanche or a “get out of jail free” card for an applicant to say what he pleased without any consequence. Any allegation made by an applicant in a recusal application must be backed by some evidence, or at the minimum, supported by rational basis. A recusal application was not an opportunity for the applicant to engage in sarcasm or to violently abuse or ridicule a judge. Criticisms coloured to the extent that they attract the law of contempt would not be protected under the realm of recusal: at [29].

9 The appellant’s allegations of bias against Woo J were groundless. The appellant conceded that he had no objective evidence to support his allegations of bias. He did not appeal against Woo J’s decision in Suit 385. He also conceded that it was the Assistant Registrar, and not Woo J, who valued the Father’s Estate as having a positive value. Once Woo J held that there were no grounds to justify an extension of time in the Registrar’s Appeals, he did not have the jurisdiction to address the issue of the valuation of the Father’s Estate. This was, however, entirely due to the appellant’s own failure to appeal within time: at [31]–[33].

10 There was no basis for the appellant to allege that the Suit 385 Costs Order was a sham made for an ulterior purpose, specifically so that it could be used to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against the appellant. The appellant chose not to appeal against the Suit 385 Costs Order and that was the end of the matter: at [36].

11 The Court of Appeal rejected the appellant’s submission that Woo J knew about the error in the Order of Court, condoned such an error, and by doing so, acted in the Sister’s interests. The Order of Court was approved, in the usual way, by the Registrar of the Supreme Court and not Woo J. The appellant also conceded that it was the Registrar, and not Woo J, who had signed the Order of Court. Further, the appellant was not prejudiced by the error in the Order of Court: at [37][38].

12 The appellant’s allegation that Woo J procured the proceedings involving the Mother’s Estate to be fixed before him for hearing was baseless. These cases were allocated by the Registrar. At the hearing of the appeal, the appellant conceded that he had made no effort to find out how the Supreme Court allocated cases. The appellant therefore had no basis to allege that Woo J had improperly exercised his judicial function to procure the hearing of cases in order to decide the same according to his allegedly “vested interests”: at [39].

13 The was no rational basis for the appellant to allege that there was prejudgment of OS 11 because OS 11 and DCA 21 were fixed to be heard on the same date. It was explained to the appellant that DCA 21 and OS 11 were fixed on the same day for expediency. It was also explained that if OS 11 was granted in the appellant’s favour, the hearing of DCA 21 would not take place until the orders in OS 11 were complied with: at [42].

14 The Court of Appeal affirmed the Judge’s finding that the appellant was guilty of scandalising contempt and contempt in the face of the Court. There was no requirement that contemptuous statements had to be verbalised to constitute contempt in the face of the Court: at [44]–[46].

15 The Court of Appeal affirmed the Judge’s decision to sentence the appellant to seven days’ imprisonment. The appellant was not a remorseful contemnor. The Allegations were allegations of dishonesty, impropriety and bias made in vituperative language. Each of the Allegations impugned the qualities of judicial independence and the appellant had made a total of 18 of them. The appellant was a first-time contemnor and this mitigating factor was taken into account: at [48]–[51].

This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s grounds of decision. 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 grounds of decision.

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