MinLaw proposes ‘nuanced’ approach to vexatious litigants

After being fired from her job in 1998, a former civil servant waged a 16-year legal battle against the Government over her dismissal. Each time a court dismissed her case, Ms Lai Swee Lin filed another one to challenge the decision.

In 2016, the Court of Appeal put a stop to her persistent legal actions after the Attorney-General applied for an order to restrain her from continuing with such attempts.

The application was made under the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (SCJA), which empowers the court to bar people who "habitually and persistently" launch vexatious legal proceedings from starting or continuing legal proceedings without the High Court's permission.

Earlier this month, the Law Ministry proposed amendments to the Act it said would allow the court to take a more "nuanced" approach in dealing with vexatious litigants.

"Today, the High Court is only able to ban all further legal proceedings brought by a vexatious litigant. This is an extreme remedy and may not always be appropriate," it said, in putting the proposals to public consultation.

The amendments empower the High Court and the Court of Appeal to restrain a vexatious litigant to varying degrees.

The proposals will also allow the court to stay proceedings if it is satisfied they are conducted in a vexatious manner and to bar further documents from being filed if it finds doing so would be vexatious or for an improper purpose.

Lawyer R. S. Wijaya said these are slight variations to existing rules - a "fine-tuning" to give judges more flexibility in exercising discretion.

Others who have been declared "vexatious litigants" under the SCJA includ•e• Ms Tham Yim Siong and her parents Tham Wah Pun and Ho Mee Foon. They filed a string of applications after their bid to bankrupt nine Cabinet ministers was thrown out.

Mr Wijaya said the need to win drives litigants who become preoccupied with their court battles.

"You have to communicate to them that there can only be one winner and one loser and only the judge decides it.

"If you have exhausted your avenues, there must be rigorous rules to manage this so that the court's time won't be wasted," he said.

In Ms Lai's case, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash said the rules do not only protect the court from being "inundated with endless and unmeritorious litigation" to the detriment of others. It also protects the opposing party from being "unwillingly dragged along".

Finally, it protects the vexatious litigant from himself.

"If such an order is not made, the vexatious litigant, having lost sight of rationality or reality and being armed with an aggravated sense of injustice about his case, is likely to persist indefinitely in instituting legal proceedings."

Ms Lai, 62, last week maintained she was not dismissed due to her poor work performance. But she added: "What is past is past. Let bygones be bygones."