Appeals court rejects suit against Grange Heights

The dispute began in 1974 when Lee Tat's predecessor, Collin Development, sought a court declaration that Hong Leong Holdings, the developer of Grange Heights, had no right of way across a 883 sq m strip of land for access to Grange Road.
The dispute began in 1974 when Lee Tat's predecessor, Collin Development, sought a court declaration that Hong Leong Holdings, the developer of Grange Heights, had no right of way across a 883 sq m strip of land for access to Grange Road.PHOTO:LIANHE ZAOBAO

Bitter 40-year tussle with developer raises significant legal issues, say judges

A developer's appeal for compensation following a 40-year tussle with Grange Heights condominium's management corporation (MCST) over a right of way across a strip of land to Grange Road has been dismissed.

In dismissing the appeal of Lee Tat Development, the five-judge apex court noted the longstanding battle with the MCST had ironically raised matters of legal significance.

Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, in judgment grounds on Aug 17, said on behalf of the court: "It is ironic that a dispute bitterly fought over several decades by two parties who have nothing but personal ill will towards each other has engendered (for Singapore law) questions of the first importance in relation to the development of the common law in general and tort law in particular."

The dispute began in 1974 when Lee Tat's predecessor, Collin Development, sought a court declaration that Hong Leong Holdings, the developer of Grange Heights, had no right of way across the 883 sq m strip of land.

In 2005, the Court of Appeal said Grange Heights residents had right of way, but this decision was overruled three years later.

Based on the judgment, Lee Tat sued the MCST in the High Court in 2012.

It sought damages for the MCST's alleged malicious prosecution of two previous actions to assert the right of way, and for allegedly abusing the court's process by asserting that right in four previous actions.

Lee Tat also took issue with the MCST for alleged malicious falsehoods and for trespassing on Lee Tat's property by using the strip of land until the Court of Appeal decision in December 2008.

However, Justice Kannan Ramesh dismissed Lee Tat's suit in May last year, urging the parties then to close the "protracted and convoluted chapter".Instead, Lee Tat filed an appeal, which triggered a rare five-judge panel that heard the case in February.

Lee Tat's lawyers, Senior Counsel Chelva Rajah and Ernest Balasubramaniam, argued, among other things, for compensation for the opportunity cost of not being able to develop two relevant plots of land for over a decade because of the MCST's actions.

Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng and lawyers Jocelyn Ngiam and Chia Shi Jin appeared for the MCST, while Singapore Management University's Professor Gary Chan served as amicus curiae - a friend of the court - appointed to research and present views on relevant issues.

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In a 105-page judgment, the apex court ruled that a party is not entitled to recover damages for the malicious prosecution of civil proceedings against the party except in very limited and defined cases, unlike Lee Tat's case.

The court further rejected the claim for the tort of abuse of process, explaining that such a move would "encourage satellite litigation and prolong disputes, particularly among parties who have animosity between them".

It pointed out that there are existing civil procedure rules to deal with various aspects of court process abuse.

"If we had, as Lee Tat has urged, recognised the torts of malicious prosecution or abuse of process, but had found against Lee Tat on the relevant facts (as we indeed have done), then Lee Tat would by its own hand, have sown the seeds of future proceedings against it by the MCST based on these very same torts.

"Such proceedings could have gone on ad infinitum with the parties taking turns to play plaintiff", given the long and acrimonious relationship between Lee Tat and the MCST.

Senior Cousel Tan said yesterday the feud may have set a record with no less than six Court of Appeal decisions covering many interesting facets of the law, "some untrodden". "We can easily have a separate volume of law reports just for these two parties. I sincerely hope that neither party will see another day in court."

The decision by the apex court is final.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2018, with the headline 'Appeals court rejects suit against Grange Heights'. Print Edition | Subscribe