Tan Boon Heng v Lau Pang Cheng David

JudgeChao Hick Tin JA
Judgment Date04 September 2013
Neutral Citation[2013] SGCA 48
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 119 of 2012
Published date10 September 2013
Hearing Date25 July 2013
Plaintiff CounselRamesh Appoo, Susila Ganesan and Rajashree Rajan (Just Law LLC)
Defendant CounselGoh Teck Wee (Goh JP & Wong)
Subject MatterCivil Procedure,Appeals
Citation[2013] SGCA 48
Chao Hick Tin JA (delivering the grounds of decision of the court):

This case arose from a road traffic accident in 2006. Liability was apportioned by consent, and the issue of damages was assessed by an assistant registrar (“the AR”). Dissatisfied with the outcome of the assessment, the appellant (who was the defendant below) appealed against the AR’s decision to a High Court judge in chambers (“the Judge”). The appeal was dismissed: see Lau Pang Cheng David v Tan Boon Heng [2013] 1 SLR 783 (“GD”). The appellant then appealed the Judge’s decision to the Court of Appeal, resulting in the present proceedings. After hearing arguments from both parties, we unanimously dismissed the appeal with costs fixed at $12,000 to the respondent.

Apart from the substantive merits of the case which concerned the proper award of damages for the injuries suffered by the respondent plaintiff, an important legal issue was also canvassed before us, namely, what were the applicable principles governing a High Court judge’s review, on appeal, of a decision made by the Registrar, the deputy registrar or an assistant registrar of the Supreme Court (“the Registrar”) in an assessment of damages, particularly in relation to the Registrar’s specific findings of fact based wholly on the oral evidence of witnesses adduced before him, as well as his finding(s) based on both oral and documentary evidence. These grounds of decision are delivered essentially to address this very issue.


The facts of this case are uncomplicated and may be shortly stated. The respondent is a surgeon specialising in ear, nose and throat. On 15 January 2006, he was cycling along the West Coast Highway when he was involved in a collision with a motor vehicle driven by the appellant. The bicycle was mangled and the respondent’s helmet cracked.

The question of liability was resolved by consent and, on 15 July 2010, an interlocutory judgment was given in the District Court (“DC”) in the respondent’s favour. Under this judgment, the appellant shouldered 95% of liability, and the respondent 5%. The DC also ordered that damages were to be assessed.

Subsequently, on 20 September 2011, because it was thought that the damages assessed could exceed the jurisdictional limit of the DC, which is $250,000, the action was transferred to the High Court. The assessment of damages was heard by the AR over seven days during the period between 5 March 2012 and 13 April 2012. On 31 May 2012, the AR awarded the respondent damages amounting to $281,877.75, excluding interest. The appellant was dissatisfied with the AR’s awards under four particular heads of relief, and appealed. The matter came before the Judge, who dismissed the appeal on 21 August 2012. The appellant then appealed against the Judge’s decision to this court.

Our decision

This court may, of course, interfere with the decision of a judge in chambers (in relation to an appeal from the Registrar), but only on well-established principles of appellate intervention: C M Van Stillevoldt BV v E L Carriers Inc [1983] 1 WLR 207 at 208–209. At the stage when the matter comes before the Court of Appeal, it is the judge’s exercise of discretion that will be examined even if he had adopted the reasons and decisions of the Registrar below: Evans v Bartlam [1937] AC 473 (“Evans v Bartlam”) at 484; Cooper v Cooper [1936] 2 All ER 542 at 543–544. As will be elaborated on later, when the Registrar conducts an assessment of damages he is exercising a delegated jurisdiction, and while the Registrar may exercise his discretion in any way he deems fit, in an appeal against his decision the judge is free to exercise a fresh discretion.

In an appeal against the decision of a judge on an assessment of damages, the Court of Appeal may vary the quantum of damages awarded by the judge only if it is shown that the latter: (a) acted on the wrong principles; (b) misapprehended the facts; or (c) had for these or other reasons made a wholly erroneous estimate of the damages: Singapore Airlines Ltd v Tan Shwu Leng [2001] 3 SLR(R) 439 at [11]–[13]. In a sense these principles are really quite similar to those which apply in other situations (besides in the context of an assessment of damages) where a judge exercises his discretion in coming to a decision, ie, the Court of Appeal can only intervene to overrule that exercise of discretion where: (a) the judge was misguided with regard to the principles under which his discretion was to be exercised; (b) the judge took into account matters which he ought not to have or failed to take into account matters which he ought to have; or (c) the judge’s decision was plainly wrong: see, eg, Hong Leong Bank Bhd v Soh Seow Poh [2009] 4 SLR(R) 525 at [45].

Counsel for the appellant sought at the hearing before us to point out the deficiencies in the Judge’s reasoning, but we were not persuaded. Having carefully perused the GD and the parties’ submissions before us, we did not think that the Judge, in affirming the AR’s assessment of damages, had, in any way, acted on wrong principles, misapprehended the facts, or made a wholly erroneous estimate of the damages. We thus found no grounds warranting appellate intervention in this case, and the appeal failed on the merits.

Applicable principles governing the review of the Registrar’s decision in an appeal to a judge in chambers

In his GD the Judge examined the applicable principles governing a review of the Registrar’s decision in an appeal to a judge in chambers. His conclusions may be summarised as follows: A judge in chambers hearing an appeal against the Registrar’s decision was not exercising appellate jurisdiction but a form of confirmatory jurisdiction, because the Registrar only exercised substituted, and not primary, jurisdiction. The judge in chambers was therefore not bound by the Registrar’s exercise of discretion (GD at [15]–[16]). In respect of the Registrar’s findings of fact on the oral as well as documentary evidence, the judge in chambers would suffer from the same disadvantages that the Court of Appeal faced in relation to similar factual findings made by a trial judge. On this account, the judge in chambers should be reluctant to reverse the findings of the Registrar (GD at [18]–[19]).

Before us, the appellant contended that the Judge had incorrectly stated the legal position. In his submission, a judge in chambers was at liberty to intervene with the Registrar’s findings of fact and to exercise his discretion in an unfettered manner if the circumstances and evidence warranted such intervention. It would otherwise be pointless to describe the appeal before the judge as being “de novo”.

The respondent took a different view. He submitted that the standard of review by the judge in chambers of the Registrar’s findings would depend on how the decision was arrived at below. Where the Registrar was hearing an assessment of damages, as distinguished from interlocutory matters, he would have to hear witnesses orally, observe their demeanour under cross-examination and assess their credibility. On appeal, therefore, the judge in chambers should be slow to disturb the Registrar’s findings of fact which were dependent upon his assessment of the witnesses before him, an advantage which the judge in chambers would not have.

While past cases have discussed some of the issues surrounding the standard of review of a decision of the Registrar, we note that this court has not had the opportunity to squarely address the question as to the appropriate standard which the judge in chambers should apply when reviewing a finding of fact of the Registrar based on oral evidence adduced before him. We think it useful to begin by touching briefly on the general nature of an appeal from the Registrar to a judge in chambers.

The Registrar’s position

The jurisdiction and functions of the Registrar are set out in s 62(1) of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap 322, 2007 Rev Ed), which provides that the Registrar has the jurisdiction, powers and duties as prescribed by the Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2006 Rev Ed) (“the Rules”). Of relevance here is O 32 r 9(1) of the Rules, which reads:

Jurisdiction of Registrar (O. 32, r. 9)

9.—(1) The Registrar of the Supreme Court shall have power to transact all such business and exercise all such authority and jurisdiction under any written law as may be transacted and exercised by a Judge in Chambers except such business, authority and jurisdiction as the Chief Justice may from time to time direct to be transacted or exercised by a Judge in person or as may by any of these Rules be expressly directed to be transacted or exercised by a Judge in person.

As has been observed in earlier cases, the Registrar is given such powers, authority and jurisdiction for administrative convenience, in a bid to save the time of the judge: Lassiter Ann Masters v To Keng Lam (alias Toh Jeanette) [2004] 2 SLR(R) 392 (“Lassiter Ann Masters”) at [20]; Ang Leng Hock v Leo Ee Ah [2004] 2 SLR(R) 361 (“Ang Leng Hock”) at [15]. The Registrar therefore exercises what is sometimes called delegated jurisdiction: see, eg, Tidswell v Tidswell (No 2) [1958] VR 601 (“Tidswell”) at 605; Sansom v Sansom [1966] P 52 at 53.

One of the matters on which the Registrar may adjudicate pertains to the assessment of damages, as stated in O 37 r 1(1) of the Rules:

Assessment of damages by Registrar (O. 37, r. 1) 1.—(1) Where judgment is given for damages to be assessed and no provision is made by the judgment as to how they are to be assessed, the damages shall, subject to the provisions of this Order, be assessed by the Registrar, and the party entitled to the benefit of the judgment shall, within one month from the date of the judgment, apply to the Registrar for directions and the provisions of Order 25, Rule 3 shall, with the necessary modifications, apply.

A decision made by the Registrar is...

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5 cases
  • Tan Boon Heng v Lau Pang Cheng David
    • Singapore
    • Court of Appeal (Singapore)
    • 4 September 2013
    ...Boon Heng Plaintiff and Lau Pang Cheng David Defendant [2013] SGCA 48 Chao Hick Tin JA , Andrew Phang Boon Leong JA and Quentin Loh J Civil Appeal No 119 of 2012 Court of Appeal Civil Procedure—Appeals—Registrar's Appeals—Assessment of damages—Standard of review of decision made by Registra......
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    ...of my decision. The role of the District Judge in the appeal As noted by the Court of Appeal in Tan Boon Heng v Lau Pang Cheng David [2013] SGCA 48, appeals such as the present one before me was a rehearing where the appellate court was exercising confirmatory and not appellate jurisdiction......
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    ...time. [6] 15 This legal principle was also propounded in the Court of Appeal of Singapore case of Tan Boon Heng v Law Pang Cheng David [2013] SGCA 48; [2013] 4 SLR 718 and which decision was referred to in Lee Chu Kong v Kan Keng Pui [2015] 1 LNS 1463 where Asmabi Mohamad J (as she then was......
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