Administrative and Constitutional Law

Date01 December 2003
Published date01 December 2003
AuthorTHIO LI-ANN BA (Hons) (Oxford), LLM (Harvard), PhD (Cambridge); Barrister (Gray’s Inn) Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore
Citation(2003) 4 SAL Ann Rev 1

1.1 With respect to developments in the field of administrative law in 2003, there was case law which further elaborated when the non-exhaustion of domestic remedies might bar an application for judicial review. The jurisdictional reach of judicial review to non-statutory or private unincorporated associations was also affirmed. Allegations of procedural unfairness were made in an expulsion case and with respect to the conduct of judicial proceedings. More unusually, a decision to terminate the employment of a member of the police force was successfully challenged on the substantive ground of irrationality.

1.2 The main constitutional cases related to the constitutional delimitation of government powers — specifically, the scope of sentencing power and whether this could be cabined by the terms of an extradition order; also, whether ordering the suspension of a sentence was a facet of executive or judicial power. The fundamental liberty of free speech in Part IV of the Constitution was implicated in a challenge against the constitutionality of the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.

Judicial review
Scope of judicial review

1.3 The formal conceptual justification for judicial review is that this gives effect to the intention of Parliament as embodied in statute, with courts in supervisory capacity policing the decision-making processes of public bodies to ensure that they remain within the derived limits of their power. It is clear that the ‘source of power’ need not be statutory but could derive from prerogative powers at common law as recognised in Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service[1985] AC 374 (‘the GCHQ case’). Furthermore, the courts are not bound to look at the source of power alone but may consider the ‘nature’ of the decision-making power when deciding whether to review a case; English courts have exercised judicial review over

the exercise of ‘public’ powers by private bodies such as unincorporated associations, as in the case of R v Panel on Take-overs and Mergers, Ex parte Datafin plc[1987] QB 815.

1.4 The question in A Kanesananthan v Singapore Ceylon Tamils” Association[2003] 3 SLR 539 was whether the proceedings of the disciplinary committee of an unincorporated association could be subject to judicial review. In principle, Choo Han Teck J held that this was possible, where the facts so warranted. The judicial role with respect to the conduct of the proceedings of domestic tribunals is a limited supervisory role, which does not extend to a re-hearing of factual issues and finding a correct decision, but is confined to ensuring the correctness of the decision-making process.

Grounds of judicial review

1.5 Within the context of Singapore, following Lord Diplock”s threefold classification of grounds of review in the GCHQ case (para 1.3 supra), as adopted by the Court of Appeal in Chng Suan Tze v Minister of Home Affairs[1988] SLR 132, the decision-making process of public bodies may be challenged on the bases of illegality (lack of fidelity to the terms of statute conferring the power), irrationality (derived from common law principles independent of the statute) and procedural impropriety. The suggested fourth heading of ‘proportionality’ has been subsumed as a facet of irrationality rather than an independent ground of review in Chng Suan Tze. It was subsequently unsuccessfully raised in cases like Kang Ngah Wei v Commander of Traffic Police[2002] 1 SLR 213 at [17].

1.6 In applying these grounds, the court is anxious to confine itself to issues of legality rather than the merits of a decision, though the legality/merits dichotomy can, because of the open-textured nature of tests of ‘purpose’ and ‘reasonableness’, be wafer thin. As asserted by Lai Kew Chai J in Ng Hock Guan v Attorney-General[2004] 1 SLR 415 at [5], in recognition of the autonomy of tribunals, the court is in the exercise of judicial review not to re-hear the case, confining itself instead to ‘the legality, fairness or propriety of the decision making process and not with the evaluation of the relative weight or probative value of the conflicting evidence’. This is a facet of the separation of powers principle. Thus, the judicial role in non-precedent fact cases is not to consider the sufficiency of the evidence so long as there is evidence to support the decision. That is, a valid decision must rest on a factual basis, into whose existence the courts may inquire, and this factual basis must reasonably support the decision arrived at: Re Fong Thin Choo[1992] 1 SLR 120. Nevertheless, the formulation of the test in Secretary of State for Education and Science v Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council[1977] AC 1014 at 1047 (followed in Re Fong Thin Choo) that the court may consider

whether the relevant decision-maker has undertaken a ‘proper self-direction’ as to the facts forming the basis of a decision, is potentially far-reaching, in so far as it may entail an assessment of the correctness of the decision itself. Nevertheless, a fairly high threshold would have to be satisfied as it would have to be shown that a domestic or professional body had ‘plainly misread the evidence and come to a conclusion which is contrary to the evidence or is otherwise plainly wrong’: Godfrey JA in Tong Pon Wah v Hong Kong Society of Accountants[1998] 3 HKC 82 at 94, cited in Ng Hock Guan v Attorney-General at [60].

Substantive grounds of review: Rationality

1.7 Although considerably rarer than cases where procedural unfairness is alleged, substantive grounds of judicial review have been previously invoked, as in Lines International Holding (S) Pte Ltd v Singapore Tourist Promotion Board[1997] 2 SLR 584 (‘Lines International’), and Kang Ngah Wei v Commander of Traffic Police where Tan Lee Meng J applied the test of Wednesbury unreasonableness from the celebrated English case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Limited v Wednesbury Corporation[1948] 1 KB 223. In both cases, it was stressed that this ground of review did not entitle the court to act like an appellate court and to substitute its views of how the discretion should be exercised with that actually taken. Judith Prakash J in Lines International noted that unreasonableness was to be understood in the ‘special sense’ as explained by Lord Greene MR in Wednesbury at 230 and elaborated by Lord Diplock in the GCHQ case at 410, referring to a decision ‘so outrageous in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral standards’ such that the decision is ‘so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it’. This had been applied in Re Yap Lack Tee George[1992] 1 SLR 488. What the court considers unreasonable is irrelevant.

1.8 These cautions were reiterated in Ng Hock Guan v Attorney-General (para 1.6 supra) where a decision was challenged for being irrational and the judge was conscious of the importance of firmly holding the line ‘against judicial activism under the guise of judicial review’ (at [74]). This case concerned the conduct of a disciplinary hearing eventuating in the dismissal of a police officer who had allegedly assaulted three Filipino women under arrest for vice activities. He was charged under s 27(1)(c) of the Police Force Act (Cap 235, 1985 Rev Ed) for ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline’.

1.9 In discussing the meaning of unreasonableness, Lai Kew Chai J noted that Lord Greene MR had differentiated between the ‘red-haired teacher’ meaning of unreasonableness which connoted an absurdity (a novel ground of review), as compared to the idea of considering extraneous matters or

acting in bad faith (whereby unreasonableness would appear to be an umbrella label under which...

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