Wright v Times Business Publications Ltd and Another

JurisdictionSingapore
Judgment Date25 January 1991
Date25 January 1991
Docket NumberSuit No 98 of 1988
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Wright Norman
Plaintiff
and
Times Business Publications Ltd and another
Defendant

[1991] SGHC 17

M Karthigesu J

Suit No 98 of 1988

High Court

Civil Procedure–Discovery of documents–Plaintiff requesting discovery of documents in libel action–Similar application by plaintiff refused in related proceedings–Plaintiff requesting further and better particulars covering same ground as documents sought in discovery–Whether documents relevant to issue raised in proceedings–Whether refusal of discovery had to result in refusal for further and better particulars–Order 24 rr 3 and 7 The Rules of the Supreme Court 1970–Words and Phrases–“Unfounded”

The defendant, Business Times (“BT”) published an article concerning the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation's (“OCBC's”) plans to recruit top-ranking bankers. This was followed by another article entitled “Executive search and recruiting alternatives”. The plaintiff (“Wright”) responded with a letter to BT's editor commenting that OCBC was amateurish or careless to allow its recruitment plans for high-level executives to be revealed.

OCBC contended that the words of Wright's letter were libellous and demanded an apology from BT and Wright. BT immediately agreed and proceeded to publish an unreserved apology that the statements in Wright's letter were wholly unfounded. Wright, however, refused to apologise. Consequently, OCBC sued Wright (“the 1987 proceedings”).

Wright also commenced proceedings against OCBC and BT (“the 1988 proceedings”). Wright objected to the fact that the words in BT's apology to OCBC were understood to mean that Wright was “irresponsible, reckless and given to making statements that [were] wholly unfounded and without any basis”. OCBC's defences were: (a) a denial that the words were libellous; (b) qualified privilege; and (c) justification.

Wright requested further and better particulars of OCBC's defence and discovery of all correspondence and memoranda of discussion, relating to the BT article and the persons named, and OCBC's recruitment procedure and directives on maintaining confidentiality. His similar application in the 1987 proceedings had been refused. The assistant registrar in the 1988 proceedings, however, allowed discovery of particular classes of documents.

OCBC appealed on the grounds that: (a) the specified class of documents was not relevant to the 1988 proceedings; and (b) to allow discovery was tantamount to allowing Wright to circumvent the court's refusal to allow a similar application in the 1987 proceedings. OCBC alleged that “the sting” which OCBC sought to justify and rely on to support the charge of recklessness/irresponsibility/mischievousness was Wright's failure to make checks. Wright, on the other hand, contended that OCBC had put in issue the truth or falsity of whether there was a breach of confidence. Both sides were in serious contention as to the real issue raised by OCBC's plea of justification and the particulars relied upon.

Also before the court were Wright's applications for: (a) further and better particulars of OCBC's defence of justification covering the same grounds as those that could be covered by the documents named in the request for discovery; and (b) interrogatories.

Held, allowing the appeal:

(1) The “sting” of the libel, if any, was in failing to check out the story, that was to say, being reckless, irresponsible and mischievous before making statements albeit comments of a leak or breach of confidentiality. In this context, it could not be a libel to say what another had said was unfounded. It was tantamount to a bare denial but it could not put in issue the truth or falsity of what was said: at [48].

(2) Whether discovery of the documents should be ordered depended on the issues raised by the pleadings and particulars supplied and the relevance of the documents towards proving or disproving those issues. In this case, the issue arising from OCBC's justification plea was whether Wright was reckless, irresponsible or mischievous in not checking out the conclusion he made in his letter to BT. As such, the documents requested for were not only irrelevant but also unnecessary either for disposing fairly of the cause or matter or for saving costs: at [42], [52], [53] and [54].

(3) Since the appeal in respect of the 1987 proceedings was pending and a similar application was refused in the 1987 proceedings, even if the documents were relevant to the 1988 proceedings, it was not desirable to grant the application for discovery due to the close connection between the 1987 and 1988 proceedings. Although there was an implied undertaking not to use the information obtained from the documents obtained in the 1988 proceedings, there was always the risk that some information might be unwittingly used in the 1987 proceedings: at [60] and [61].

(4) As the further and better particulars sought were in reality in the nature of interrogatories and covered the same grounds as would have been covered by the documents in the application for discovery, the request for further and better particulars had to be similarly refused. The court would also not order particulars of evidence: at [65] and [67].

(5) Interrogatories pertaining to OCBC's knowledge were allowed regarding absence of: (a) BT's investigation into the truth of allegations in the apology; and (b) communications between Wright and BT regarding the apology: at [72].

Alterskye v Scott [1948] 1 All ER 469 (refd)

Compagnie Financiere Et Commerciale Du Pacifique, The v The Peruvian Guano Co (1882) 11 QBD 55 (folld)

Crest Homes plc v Marks [1987] AC 829; [1987] 2 All ER 1074 (refd)

Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp Ltd v Wright Norman [1989] 1 SLR (R) 551; [1989] SLR 580 (refd)

Rules of the Supreme Court1970, TheO 24rr 3, 7 (consd);O 24rr 7 (1), 8

Rules of Supreme Court1875 (UK)O XXX1r 12

Charles Gray QC and Gill Sarjit Singh (Shook Lin & Bok) for the appellant/second defendant

Patrick Milmo QC and Tan Woon Tiang (Arthur Loke & Partners) for the respondent/plaintiff.

M Karthigesu J

1 This is an appeal against the order of an assistant registrar made on 4 October 1989 ordering the second defendants, whom I shall refer to hereafter as “OCBC”, to make discovery of the following particular classes of documents:

(a) Documents evidencing or referring to OCBC's endeavours in and around November 1987 to recruit four top-ranking bankers including (but not necessarily limited to):

(i) all memoranda and circulars distributed within OCBC;

(ii) letters written to, or received from, potential recruits.

(b) All letters written to, or received from the persons named in the Business Times (“BT”) article of 17 November 1987 (including letters of offer, letters of acceptance and contracts of employment), both before and after the publication of the said article, and all records of conversations or interviews with such person prior to the official announcement of their appointment (in so far as such documents are not disclosed under (a) (i) above).

(c) OCBC's corporate procedure manual, policy and procedure manual or any other memoranda, circulars or notices relating to the process of hiring senior executives and handling and securing of personnel files.

(d) All internal memoranda and letters (in so far as not disclosed under a (i) or (c) above) concerning the selection of the persons named as aforesaid for appointment in or after November 1987 to positions within OCBC.

(e) Notes, or other record, of the conversation between:

(i) Alvin Tay and David Cheam on 16 November 1987;

(ii) David Cheam and Alvin Tay on 27 November 1987.

(f) All documents, whether they be letters, memoranda, notices or circulars, setting out or including instructions to OCBC's staff regarding the disclosure or non-disclosure of the names of persons who have been, or might be appointed, to positions within OCBC, both generally and in relation to the four persons named as aforesaid.

(g) All letters sent or received by OCBC and all internal memoranda, circulars and notices in response to or concerning:

(i) Alvin Tay's article in BT of 17 November 1987;

(ii) the plaintiff's (whom I shall refer to hereafter as “Norman Wright”) letter published in BT of 28 November 1987.

2 To understand the ramifications of this order and the postures taken by these two protagonists in respect thereof I shall have to refer extensively to an earlier action, Suit No 3190 of 1987, in which OCBC were the plaintiffs and Norman Wright, one of the defendants, as well as to what gave rise to those proceedings. I shall also have to refer quite extensively to the interlocutory applications made by Norman Wright in those proceedings for discovery and for leave to issue certain interrogatories to OCBC. I shall refer to Suit No 3190 of 1987 as “the 1987 proceedings”.

3 Norman Wright is a senior executive of an executive search firm. OCBC are bankers carrying on business in Singapore and elsewhere.

The background

4 On 17 November 1987, BT published a story by Alvin Tay, its banking correspondent, entitled “OCBC plans to recruit four top-ranking bankers”. The story was printed under the photographs of four well-known banking personalities in Singapore. The caption under the four photographs read “On OCBC's wanted list … (from left) Mrs Elizabeth Sam, Mr Ng Tat Pun, Mr Lai Teck Poh and Mr Goh Chee Hiong”.

5 The first and third paragraphs of the story read:

The Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation is eyeing four top-ranking bankers, including former central banker Mrs Elizabeth Sam, in what promises to be the biggest recruitment drive of high calibre staff in the bank's history

and

Official confirmation from OCBC was not available yesterday, but BT understands that Mr Ng is receptive to the bank's offer. The status of the other individuals is not clear.

6 Alvin Tay's story was followed by an article on “Executive search and recruiting...

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