Ong Wui Teck v Attorney-General

JudgeJudith Prakash JA
Judgment Date24 March 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] SGCA 17
Plaintiff CounselThe appellant in person
Docket NumberCivil Appeal Nos 33 and 112 of 2019
Date24 March 2020
Hearing Date19 February 2020
Subject MatterScandalising the court,Contempt of Court,Sentencing,Contempt in the face of the court
Defendant CounselKhoo Boo Jin, Elaine Liew, Lee Hui Min and Ashley Ong (Attorney-General's Chambers)
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Citation[2020] SGCA 17
Published date28 March 2020
Judith Prakash JA (delivering the judgment of the court): Introduction

These appeals arise 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.

The committal proceedings were heard in the High Court in August 2018. After consideration of the evidence and the submissions, the High Court Judge (“the Judge”) found the appellant guilty of scandalising contempt and contempt in the face of the Court. Her reasons can be found in Attorney-General v Ong Wui Teck [2019] SGHC 30 (“the Contempt Judgment”). The Judge sentenced the appellant to seven days’ imprisonment for the reasons found in Attorney-General v Ong Wui Teck [2019] SGHC 147 (“the Sentencing GD”). The present appeals were lodged by the appellant against liability and sentence. It should be noted that in all proceedings leading to the committal application, and in that application and these appeals, the appellant has acted in person.

The Background

The facts have been set out in detail in the Contempt Judgment. We set out only those facts that are necessary to come to our decision.

The Father’s Estate proceedings

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 this appointment, he had been involved in various disputes with his sister, Ms Ong Wui Soon (“the Sister”), in Suit No 385 of 2011 (“Suit 385”) concerning the Father’s Estate. These disputes were adjudicated by Woo J, who found in favour of the appellant in relation to the most valuable assets in the Father’s Estate. Woo J also held, however, that the appellant had failed to give a proper account of the assets of the Father’s Estate. He thus ordered an inquiry to determine the net total value of the Father’s Estate for distribution to the beneficiaries (“the Inquiry”). Woo J’s grounds of decision can be found in Ong Wui Soon v Ong Wui Teck [2013] 1 SLR 733 (“the 2012 Judgment”). No appeal was filed against the 2012 Judgment. On 3 March 2014, Woo J fixed costs of Suit 385 at $10,000 in favour of the Sister (“the Suit 385 Costs Order”).

The Inquiry was conducted by an Assistant Registrar (“the AR”). The AR found that the Father’s Estate had a positive value of $15,756 and ordered the appellant to pay the Sister her one-twelfth share of the Father’s Estate and her costs of the Inquiry. 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 (“RA 54”). The Sister in turn appealed against the grant of an extension of time to the appellant (“RA 72”). We shall hereafter refer to RA 54 and RA 72 collectively as “the Registrar’s Appeals”.

The Registrar’s Appeals came on for hearing together before a Judicial Commissioner (“the JC”). At the hearing, counsel for the Sister submitted that both appeals should be heard before Woo J as he was more familiar with the matter. The appellant did not object and the Registrar’s Appeals were then adjourned to be heard before Woo J. In May 2014, Woo J heard the Registrar’s Appeals. He held that the appellant should not have been granted an extension of time. RA 72 was, therefore, allowed while RA 54, the appellant’s appeal against the outcome of the Inquiry, was dismissed. Woo J, however, changed the costs’ order made by the AR in respect of the Inquiry from costs to be taxed to fixed costs of $400. This part of the decision was in the appellant’s favour. The grounds of this decision can be found in Ong Wui Swoon v Ong Wui Teck and another matter [2014] SGHC 157 (“the 2014 GD”).

The appellant appealed against the findings in the 2014 GD but both his appeals were struck out by this Court. This meant that the appellant could no longer dispute the findings made in the Inquiry. The appellant remained deeply unhappy at the outcome of the Inquiry as he could not accept the basis on which the Father’s Estate had been found to have a positive value.

The Mother’s Estate proceedings and the recusal application

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 attended a pre-trial conference in the High Court on 26 January 2016 (“the PTC”). They were informed by an Assistant Registrar that Woo J was scheduled to hear DCA 21 and OS 11. Two days later, the appellant sent a letter to the Chief Justice of Singapore, alleging that Woo J’s “independence is compromised”. On 22 February 2016, the appellant filed OS 165 seeking an order that Woo J be recused. 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. Woo J’s reasoning can be found in Ong Wui Teck v Ong Wui Swoon [2016] 2 SLR 1067 (“the Recusal GD”).

The Allegations

In May 2016, the respondent informed the appellant that the Allegations made in the OS 165 Affidavits were in contempt of court. The respondent requested that the appellant withdraw the Allegations and apologise to both Woo J and the Supreme Court. The appellant refused to do so. After a preliminary leave application was heard and allowed, the respondent applied for an order of committal against the appellant under O 52 r 2(2) of the Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2014 Rev Ed). As the focus of these appeals is on whether the Allegations constitute fair criticism made in good faith, it is necessary for us to set them out in some detail. The Allegations can be grouped into five categories.

First, allegations of extreme bias: “there is extreme biasness [sic] in the way Woo J had conducted the trial of [the Father’s Estate]”; “although it was brought up to Woo J in [Suit 385], he vehemently refused to recognise the material fact that the opposing party had obstructed the accounting of the estate”; Woo J “was steering towards a biased finding of failure to give proper account in any event” and “[e]ither … failed to recognise … relevant material evidence … or … biasedly [sic] chose to ignore it”. Woo J “was clearly biased in favour of the opposing party/solicitor” and “was granting the solicitor impunity on a silver platter”; “Woo J must have recognised that the arguments of the opposing party are clearly devoid of merit and, hence, by deciding not to proceed with the substantive appeal of the inquiry, [Woo J] had allowed this matter of fraud to be swept under the carpet”; Woo J “had allowed the nature and function of the court to be transformed from a court dispensing justice into an instrument of injustice, condoning oppression by the opposing party in subjecting [the appellant] to unnecessary time, effort and costs at the main trial and at the inquiry”; “Evidence in [the Mother’s Estate] that are in [the appellant’s] favour but which impinges on [Woo J’s] findings and rulings on [the Father’s Estate] will be disregarded [by Woo J] at [the appellant’s] expense”. Woo J “would not bring an impartial mind to the issues relating to his prior findings [in the Father’s Estate Proceedings], thereby making fair hearings [in the Mother’s Estate actions] unattainable”; “Woo J has a vested interest to uphold his rulings in [Suit 385], even though they are plainly wrong against the weight of the evidence, which he biasedly refuse [sic] to acknowledge”; “Woo J had conducted himself [such] that a high probability arises of a bias inconsistent with the fair performance of his duties”. “There is a miscarriage of justice in [Woo J’s] conduct of the action on [the Father’s Estate] and given [Woo J’s] vested interest to uphold his ruling, he would, in all likelihood, rule to [the appellant’s] detriment and to the detriment of [the Mother’s Estate]”; “Woo J, in this instance, has morphed from a judge into a supernumery [sic] opposing lawyer.” He cannot “fully remove all trace of odour from the air of impartiality. Indeed, the more he seeks to justify his position, the stronger the smell may grow”; and “The perception of bias is more real than apparent. The stench from the air of impartiality is overbearing”.

Second, allegations that the Suit 385 Costs Order was made for an ulterior purpose: the sham [Suit 385 Costs Order] that [the appellant] pay the [Sister] $10,000 was intended to influence the course and the outcome of the hearing before [the JC]”; “with the sham [Suit 385 Costs Order] made on the finding of a so-called improper account at the main trial, [Woo J] was steering the appeal of the inquiry towards an outcome unfavourable to [the appellant] by influencing [the JC]; “Woo J must have acknowledged the strength of [the appellant’s] case to the extent that he had to intercept with a sham [Suit 385 Costs Order] on the basis of a so-called improper account ruling, to prevent an award of accounting costs to [the appellant] and to steer towards an outcome in the...

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