Court rejects doc's bid to halt probe; urges against undue delay

A doctor failed in his High Court bid to stop a disciplinary tribunal probe against him. He argued that he had suffered substantial prejudice from the "inordinate delay" it had taken for his case to be referred to the tribunal by a complaints committee.

Justice Woo Bih Li, in rejecting his application recently, said the disciplinary tribunal would be able to decide for itself if the delay had prejudiced his case, and added nothing said in his judgment "is to bind the hands of the disciplinary tribunal".

A complaints committee began probing general practitioner Lee Pheng Lip on May 8, 2014, following a complaint by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) that he was offering some non-mainstream services.

A 2013 letter from the Ministry of Health on which the complaint was based also raised concerns over the appropriateness of the medical management of some of his patients.

The committee obtained 13 extensions of time (EOTs), of which eight were made after an already extended deadline. The complaints panel chairman approved all 13 extensions. The committee completed its inquiry on Feb 12 last year and ordered that a formal inquiry against Dr Lee be held by a disciplinary tribunal.

Dr Lee, represented by lawyer Colin Liew of Essex Court Chambers Duxton (Singapore Group Practice), applied for leave to quash all time extensions by the complaints panel chairman, the order that an inquiry be held by a disciplinary tribunal, and an order to stop the SMC referring the complaint.

Among other things, counsel argued that Dr Lee had suffered substantial prejudice from non-compliance with the Medical Registration Act (MRA) and the long delay in prosecuting him on matters said to have occurred in 2009.

Such a delay amounted to abuse of process or breach of natural justice at common law, Mr Liew said.

The SMC, the complaints committee and the complaints panel chairman, named as defendants, said the committee's applications for time extensions to complete its inquiry were not open to a judicial review and could not be quashed.

Represented by Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi and lawyer Thara Rubini Gopalan from TSMP Law Corp, the defendants added it was premature for Dr Lee to seek leave to apply for quashing orders from the court.

Justice Woo, in judgment grounds earlier this month, accepted that although the laws were intended for inquiries to be completed expeditiously, the requirements under the Act are meant to encourage such an outcome but not to frustrate the entire process. He noted the MRA does not prescribe a "long-stop date" by which the complaints committee has to complete its probe, unlike the regime in the Legal Profession Act regulating lawyers.

The judge said the time taken may be stretched when a complaints committee probes multiple cases at the same time. In this case, the committee was handling seven discrete complaints against various medical practitioners. It is also likely that a complaints committee "will need to seek EOTs for reasons other than the complexity of the matter or serious difficulties it encountered in conducting its inquiry," he said.

He dismissed Dr Lee's application for leave to apply for the various quashing orders. Justice Woo added: "While the plaintiff has not succeeded, any undue delay in concluding an inquiry is not satisfactory. The relevant authorities should redress the situation so that complaints of undue delay are a thing of the past."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2019, with the headline 'Court rejects doc's bid to halt probe; urges against undue delay'. Print Edition | Subscribe