The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) was wrong to think that it cannot be made to bear the costs incurred by a doctor found innocent in a disciplinary hearing.
The Court of Appeal said it was "implausible" that Parliament meant the SMC to have "absolute immunity" from bearing the legal expenses in such cases - especially those in which the professional watchdog was clearly in the wrong.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Justices Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash said this in their March 5 judgment, which turned down an appeal by the SMC over being made to pay the cost of Dr Lawrence Ang's disciplinary and court hearings.
It came after the Supreme Court overturned a disciplinary committee's guilty verdict regarding one of four charges against Dr Ang for the way he delivered a baby who fell ill.
The SMC had argued that it "cannot in law" be made to pay the doctor's costs based on the Medical Registration Act, and that it "should not" be made to pay as it was carrying out its public regulatory function.
The Act does not mention costs when a doctor is found not guilty. The judges, however, said this does not mean a disciplinary tribunal cannot make the SMC pay.
They found it difficult to imagine that Parliament intended to allow a quasi-prosecutorial body such as the SMC to act with absolute immunity from costs when the public prosecutor, who exercises public "constitutional" functions, does not enjoy a similar privilege.
The judges added that the power to order costs is important "to incentivise appropriate conduct in litigation".
They said that in this particular case, it was "indefensible" for the SMC to ask not to be made to pay the cost, as the Health Minister had ordered the hearing "even though the conduct in question has been assessed by fellow professionals and found not to cross even a preliminary threshold of misconduct".
The court also took the ministry's action to task.
"No reasons were given by the minister," the judges said. "It is not evident why or how the decision of the Complaints Committee was considered to be unsatisfactory."
They added that the SMC was also at fault when it failed to specify the type of professional misconduct Dr Ang had allegedly committed, leading to "a lack of clarity" on what he was being charged with.
Also, the disciplinary committee "made a number of errors" in finding the doctor guilty, including taking into account "facts that it should not have considered".
The judges concluded that the SMC "bore a measure of the responsibility for the errors made by the lower tribunal", thus providing further reason for the SMC to bear the cost of the hearings incurred by Dr Ang.