Court orders AHTC to hand over to PRPTC all financial documents related to Punggol East

The Aljunied-Hougang Town Council has been ordered to hand over all financial documents related to Punggol East constituency to the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council by Nov 4.
The Aljunied-Hougang Town Council has been ordered to hand over all financial documents related to Punggol East constituency to the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council by Nov 4.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

SINGAPORE - The Aljunied Hougang Town Council (AHTC) will have to hand over all financial documents related to Punggol East constituency to the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) by Nov 4, following an order by the Court of Appeal.

Its request for PRPTC to sign a blanket non-disclosure agreement was also dismissed.

But the apex court imposed limits on PRPTC's use of some of the documents that also contain information about other constituencies still managed by AHTC. For these "category 2" documents, PRPTC can only disclose or use them in the exercise of its rights and in the discharge of its duties under the law.

Both town councils have been engaged in a tussle over the documents since July, and had been in court three times over the issue. The latest hearing on Monday (Oct 24) was initiated by PRPTC to press AHTC for the documents it is still owed.

During the hearing, AHTC, citing confidentiality concerns, had said it would only release the remaining "category 2" documents if PRPTC agreed to a non-disclosure agreement.

The agreement would prevent the town council from revealing vendor-related information in the documents, among other things.

In its judgement released on Friday (Oct 28), the three-judge Court of Appeal said it was important to balance the interests of both town councils.

But it added that AHTC had failed to raise any "specific and identifiable" confidentiality concerns it had with particular documents so that effort can be made to mitigate its concerns while giving PRPTC access.

"All that has been done is that the word "confidential" or its cognate expressions have been added as adjectives to various classes of documents. We cannot see how these generic descriptors can suffice to show that AHTC has specific confidentiality concerns in respect of particular documents," said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon delivering the judgement of the court.

He also said that PRPTC is entitled to the documents since it had taken over Punggol East from AHTC, formerly known as AHPETC, after last year's General Election. The Workers' Party had lost the constituency to the People's Action Party.

As such, PRPTC should be allowed to use the documents or disclose its contents as long as it was to further its "legitimate legal intersts", said CJ Menon.

These interests relate to the town council's mandate to administer the common property for the benefit of residents, and manage Punggol East's financial affairs in line with the Town Councils Act, among other things.

At an earlier hearing in August, the court had already ordered AHTC to hand over to PRPTC all of the "category 1" documents, which relate solely to Punggol East.

But this was not done as some of the documents were kept in the same files that also contained confidential information about other parts of AHTC.

AHTC vice-chairman Sylvia Lim had said in court on Monday that it would be too onerous for the town council to physically separate the documents as it was tied up with other audits.

CJ Menon said this was "unsatisfactory", adding: "We are unable to see how any administrative difficulty can be an adequate answer to a failure to comply with an obligation of disclosure that has been speifically imposed by this court."

He added that AHTC could choose to make copies of all the documents, or allow PRPTC's accountant, PwC, to have access to the originals.

"What it cannot do is cute adminsitrative difficulties in the extraction of the documents as a reason for non-compliance."

In a statement on Friday night, AHTC said it was assured by the court order, as it had made clear that PRPTC "does not have unfettered use" of the information in the "category 2" documents.

It added that it has contacted PwC "to start their work at AHTC's premises" from next Monday ( Oct 31).