Blogger Roy Ngerng's court case for defaming the Prime Minister may attract "popular" interest, but this did not make it one involving "public" interest.
The concepts are different, said Justice Steven Chong in decision grounds released yesterday on why he refused Mr Ngerng's request to hire a Queen's Counsel.
After a court ruled last November that he had defamed PM Lee Hsien Loong, the 34-year-old blogger applied for British QC Heather Rogers, an expert in defamation law, to represent him in a hearing to assess how much damages he has to pay.
Mr Ngerng's lawyer George Hwang argued that the case's "novelty" - this was the first time a blogger was sued by the Prime Minister - meant such expertise was needed.
But Justice Chong wrote in his decision: "The fact that this was the first time that a blogger has been sued by a public leader might invite significant media attention, but that did not mean that the decision was of significant legal import."
Mr Lee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, the Attorney-General's Chambers and the Law Society all opposed the move to admit QC Rogers.
They pointed out that figuring the amount of damages was a "straightforward exercise" which did not need the expertise of a foreign senior counsel.
The judge agreed, adding that Singapore has developed its own principles on defamation, which the British QC would "unlikely" be familiar with even though "she is an excellent lawyer in the field of defamation".
Mr Hwang himself also recognised that Singapore had developed its own set of legal principles on the subject, noted the judge.
"Our courts have consistently emphasised that our political culture places a heavy premium on the values of honesty and integrity in the public discourse," said Justice Chong. " Thus, the reputational interest of political figures is given particular protection as it impacts on the public's impression of the integrity of the political system of which they are a part."
He also pointed out that the courts here had long ceased to rely on English awards as a benchmark for local awards.
He also took issue with the supporting affidavits for the application for the QC, ruling there "was simply no material before me to suggest Ms Rogers would be particularly conversant with the delicate matrix of factors which inform the award of damages for libel against public figures in Singapore". He said "Ms Rogers' affidavit read more like a truncated curriculum vitae rather than an affidavit filed in support of ad hoc admission".
Justice Chong added that the factual issues relating to the damages would be decided based on the cross-examination of Mr Ngerng, not Mr Lee, and "it was not a matter on which Ms Rogers' expertise in cross-examination may be brought to bear", he said, discounting her skills in this area as a reason for admission.
He pointed out that there was a large number of local lawyers who were not senior counsel but were competent to handle the case and expressed disappointment none were approached.
He also rejected the idea that Ms Rogers should be admitted to avoid a "David and Goliath" scenario and ensure "equality of arms" on both sides. "The touchstone for admission is 'need', not 'equality'," said Justice Chong.
Mr Ngerng was ordered to pay $6,000 to Mr Lee for the unsuccessful bid for a QC.
He represented himself in last week's three-day hearing before Justice Lee Seiu Kin to assess damages. The case has been adjourned for final submissions by the end of next month.