AHTC gets nod for some changes to claims against town councillors

Court rejects those linked to WP chief, two others as these involve issues not dealt with during trial

Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, represented by an independent panel, had in 2017 taken its own town councillors to court over $33 million in improper payments that it made under their watch. Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council soon followed with a parallel lawsuit against the same defendants. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) has failed in its bid to add to the claims against Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh and two other defendants in a long-running case it brought against its own town councillors.

But it succeeded in amending the claims against WP chairman Sylvia Lim and former party chief Low Thia Khiang, as well as the owners of its former managing agent.

AHTC's claims against Mr Singh and town councillors Chua Zhi Hon and Kenneth Foo were focused on several specific contracts, while its claims against Ms Lim, Mr Low and Ms How Weng Fan, owner of FM Solutions and Services (FMSS), were focused on breaches of fiduciary duty.

In an application heard earlier this month, AHTC had sought claims against them for breaches of a duty to exercise due skill and care towards the town council in relation to the contract awarded to FMSS and payments made to the firm.

In an oral judgment released by High Court Judge Kannan Ramesh on Aug 20 and which was posted by Mr Singh on his Facebook page, the judge said the amendments pertaining to Mr Singh, Mr Chua and Mr Foo involved issues that were not dealt with during the trial.

Allowing this category of amendments would result in the introduction of new claims which the three defendants had not had a chance to address, he added, noting that judgment had been made in October last year.

In the case of Ms Lim, Mr Low and Ms How, however, he said the amendments did not do more than make clear the real controversy between them and the town council.

He therefore allowed the amendments, as the issues raised had been addressed in the original judgment and did not amount to giving AHTC "a second bite of the cherry".

The bid to amend the claims is the latest development in the court case, which is now before the Court of Appeal.

Justice Ramesh's judgment last October had covered the lawsuit brought by AHTC, as well as a parallel lawsuit brought by Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) against the same defendants.

These two lawsuits had been tried together, but were not consolidated.

Noting this, Justice Ramesh said that while the claims made by both town councils arose from "a largely common bedrock of facts", the cases of the two town councils differed in several material ways, with PRPTC's claims being broader in scope. Some of the reliefs allowed in the October judgment therefore applied only to PRPTC, not AHTC.

In seeking the changes, AHTC had said it would bring its claims in line with those of PRPTC.

It said that since the breaches against PRPTC, which relate to the then Punggol East constituency, are premised on the breaches against AHTC, the "ends of justice will not be served" if AHTC is not able to recover its loss when PRPTC is able to do so.

Punggol East was managed by the WP-run town council from 2013 to 2015, but came under PRPTC after the People's Action Party won the constituency in the 2015 General Election. It has been split up following changes to electoral boundaries and parts of it are now in Sengkang GRC.

In 2017, AHTC, represented by an independent panel, took the town councillors to court over $33 million in improper payments that the town council had made under their watch. PRPTC soon followed with a parallel lawsuit.

AHTC had also said that since the amended claims are in line with PRPTC's claims, the changes would not prejudice the defendants, who had ample opportunity to deal with the issues during trial.

It added that the underlying facts on which the amendments are based had also been addressed during the trial.

But Justice Ramesh said that since the two lawsuits had not been consolidated, they were treated as separate proceedings.

The reason is that the proposed amendments raise new issues, which were not addressed by the judgment.

Among the points the judge made is that even if he had allowed all the proposed amendments by AHTC, it does not mean the town council would be entitled to the reliefs that PRPTC had been awarded in the October judgment.

"Notably, AHTC has not offered an explanation... as to why it did not at the outset align its pleadings with PRPTC's, and why the application has been brought so late in the day," he said.

He ordered the parties to file submissions on costs within one week of the judgment.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2020, with the headline AHTC gets nod for some changes to claims against town councillors. Subscribe