Man awarded $20k in damages over unlawful arrest has to pay $28k in legal costs overall

The High Court awarded legal costs of $19,320 to Mr Mah Kiat Seng, and $48,000 to the Attorney-General, which was representing the police force. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - A man who was awarded $20,000 in damages by the High Court, after he sued the police for wrongly arresting him, will have to pay more than $28,000 in legal costs to the defendants.

In January, Mr Mah Kiat Seng, 48, succeeded in his claim relating to one officer, Mr Mohamed Rosli Mohamed, for unlawful apprehension. But he failed in a second claim that another officer, Mr Lawrence Tan Thiam Chin, had assaulted him while in custody.

On Friday, the court awarded legal costs of $19,320 to Mr Mah, and $48,000 to the Attorney-General (AG), which represented the Singapore Police Force.

Justice Philip Jeyaretnam said: “In my view, Mah is entitled to the costs of his successful claim against Rosli but must pay costs for his unsuccessful claim against Tan.”

As for other claims against the police that were not directed at specific officers, the judge said that overall, the police was successful in its defence and entitled to costs. Generally, the losing party in a civil case has to pay for the winning party’s legal costs.

In his written judgment, Justice Jeyaretnam said it may appear incongruent that Mr Mah is awarded $19,320 in costs for issues comprising 70 per cent of the matter while the AG is awarded $48,000 for the balance of 30 per cent.

One reason for the apparent incongruity was that Mr Mah had represented himself when he sued the AG, as well as Mr Rosli and Mr Tan. The judge said that compensation for the time of self-represented litigants will ordinarily be less than for legal representation, because of the principle that litigants must not profit from costs of legal proceedings.

Second, the judge had referred to the magistrate’s court scale of costs in determining costs to Mr Mah, because he could have brought this case in that lower court, which hears claims for sums of up to $60,000. In contrast, the judge assessed the AG’s costs against the cost guidelines which apply to High Court matters, because the AG did not choose the court.

“A successful defendant to a matter brought in a higher court than the one appropriate to the claim is entitled to costs assessed on the scale or guidelines of that higher court,” said the judge.

Under the Rules of Court, where a self-represented plaintiff is awarded up to $20,000, the costs to be allowed are $3,000 to $6,000, although the court can order otherwise.

Justice Jeyaretnam said: “In my view, given that this case, despite its low monetary value, is not a straightforward one, I would exercise my discretion to order otherwise.”

Justice Jeyaretnam said a simple calculation of the time Mr Mah spent on the case would be 460 hours, comprising 60 hours for the six trial days, 300 hours for pre-trial preparation and 100 hours for post-trial work. The judge determined that 70 per cent of the time was spent on the unlawful apprehension claim on which Mr Mah succeeded, resulting in a net figure of 322 hours.

Referring to the scale of costs applicable in the magistrate’s court, he worked out the amount to $100 per hour. But he discounted it by a third for the profit a lawyer was entitled to, and rounded the figure down to $60 an hour. “Accordingly, multiplying $60 by 322, I fix costs payable to Mah at $19,320,” he said.

The AG meanwhile sought costs totalling $85,000, comprising $35,000 for the successful defence of Mr Tan, and $50,000 for the partially successful defence of the police force.

Justice Jeyaretnam noted that the relevant costs guidelines range from $91,000 to $196,000. He said he would award only 30 per cent, given the time spent on the claims. “Accordingly, taking a reasonable and proportionate amount for the matter as a whole to be $160,000, I would fix costs in their (AG’s) favour at $48,000,” he said.

Mr Mah was apprehended on the night of July 7, 2017 on the concern that he could be a danger to himself or others due to a mental disorder.

On Feb 7, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Chambers are considering appealing against the court’s decision to award damages to Mr Mah.

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