A judge directs one party to make amendments to a court document and assigns another date for parties to come back. When the parties return, he says that the time is too late and dismisses the application.
Sounds like a cruel joke, right? And yet this is exactly what happened in court last week.
In dismissing Ms Chee Siok Chin’s application to overturn the Official Assignee’s (OA) rejection of her travel application to Stanford University, High Court Judge Tan Lee Meng made absolutely no sense.
Ms Chee had filed an Originating Summons (OS) against the OA for preventing her from travelling to the US to embark on a three-week fellowship programme on democracy and the rule of law organised by Stanford University.
The hearing was initially fixed on 11 Aug 08. However, Judge Tan told Mr Chia Ti Lik, who was arguing for Ms Chee that the papers were not properly served on the Attorney General and that the wording of the OS lacked clarity.
The Judge then set another date for the hearing to be reconvened — a full three weeks later on 1 Sep 08.
When the hearing resumed on 1 Sep, Judge Tan said that it was purely an “academic” exercise for him to rule on Ms Chee’s application because the fellowship period was over. He thus dismissed the OS.
What was even more shocking was that the period of the fellowship was written right on the first page of the OS. The Judge couldn’t have missed it. If he was going to decide that 1 Sep was past the fellowship period, why on earth did he re-schedule the hearing so late?
LET ALL PARTIES concerned attend before the Judge in open court on the 11th day of August 2008 at 10 am on the hearing of an application by the Applicant, namely: –
- The decision of the Respondent to refuse permission for the Applicant to leave the jurisdiction for Standford University, California, United States for the period from 28th July 2008 till 15th August 2008 be reviewed and varied accordingly. (emphasis added)
- The Respondent be made to pay the disbursements incurred of this application herein.
But even if the Judge Tan had decided that the hearing took place after the fellowship period, there was still a pressing need for him to look into how the OA had dealt with the matter. It was important that the courts examined the goings-on in the OA’s office vis-a-vis this matter in which its actions and statements were clearly and publicly shown to be dishonest.
Readers may recall that the OA’s office had rejected Ms Chee’s travel application because it did not benefit her creditors. Stanford University then said that it would pay Ms Chee an honorarium and Ms Chee told the OA that she would use that to pay her creditors. So the original reason for the denial to travel no longer existed.
And yet the officials continued to disallow her to go to Stanford, now changing tack and saying, in a letter to the Straits Times Forum, that Ms Chee had been uncooperative.
However when Ms Chee replied to the letter, producing email evidence that the OA officers had lied, the Straits Times refused to publish her response, saying that it had already been published on the SDP’s website. This editorial “policy” is another lie which will be the subject of a separate article to be posted in due course.
This is the kind of low-down tactic that the OA’s office adopts which, when exposed, is then covered up by the Straits Times.
Ms Chee then made the application asking the High Court to look into the OA’s handling of her application and to look into whether everything was done according to procedure and in good faith.
A court ruling would have made clear whether the OA had acted in good faith or not. This cannot by any measure be considered an academic exercise. Citizens must be protected from malicious and arbitrary decisions of government bodies.
In other words, the Judge had a duty to decide on the merits of the applicaion and not side-step the issue by saying that the fellowship period was over and therefore was of no consequence.
Even if the date is over, there is still the question of whether the OA’s office had done wrong. Even if Ms Chee could not have attended the fellowship, she could have taken further action against the OA for wrongful rejection of her travel application.
The end-result? Justice would have been served. That’s what courts do — administer justice. Not just between criminal and victim, but also between State and citizen. The OA would have been held more transparent and accountable, and less unlawful in the future.
Think of it this way: Just because the Stanford fellowship was over, does it mean that the actions of the OA’s office need not be examined anymore? What sort of logic is this?
As it turned out, not only did the OA’s office get away scot-free, Ms Chee was ordered to pay cost of $1,000.
Does this also mean that in future, any government department, in order to avoid having its actions scrutinised in court, simply has to drag its feet until events are overtaken?
Such is the sad state of transparency and accountability in Singapore.