Is the Attorney-General entitled to seek legal costs from the losing party of judicial review proceedings when he decides to intervene in such cases to raise public interest arguments?
The Court of Appeal is mulling over the question, in the saga stemming from prominent surgeon Susan Lim's overcharging of a Bruneian royal patient.
Dr Lim's husband, retired banker Deepak Sharma, had complained to the Law Society that opposing lawyers in disciplinary proceedings against his wife had inflated their fees.
When his complaint was dismissed, Mr Sharma took the Law Society to court to challenge the decision in a proceeding known as a judicial review, in which the court is asked to examine the decisions of public bodies.
The A-G, who is notified of such proceedings, stepped in at the preliminary stage and raised several legal issues, including whether Mr Sharma had the legal standing to make such a bid.
The actual case proceeded for hearing but Mr Sharma ultimately lost on the overall merits.
After Mr Sharma lost his appeal in March, both the society and the A-G sought costs from him. He objected to footing the costs sought by the A-G, which amounted to $104,700, plus expenses totalling $3,900.
His lawyer, Mr Abraham Vergis, said: "There is something intrinsically wrong with the idea that the Attorney-General should be awarded costs for raising public interest considerations and that a private litigant should be ordered to fund it."
Mr Vergis conceded that precedents are against him but argued that the principle of "costs follow the event" - where the winning party is entitled to be awarded costs against the losing party - does not apply to the A-G.
The A-G, as an intervener with no substantive interest in the outcome of the case, is not the "winning" party and should not be awarded costs for carrying out public service, he said.
Mr Christopher Anand Daniel, representing the Law Society, argued: "Why should the public pay for it? If the litigant does not raise the argument, the A-G will not expend resources to deal with it."
Deputy Senior State Counsel Khoo Boo Jin from the A-G's Chambers (AGC) argued that Mr Sharma should pay its costs as the positions he had taken required the A-G to participate in the public interest. Past cases show that costs have been awarded in the AGC's favour even when the A-G is not specifically named as a party, said Mr Khoo.
He added that the money goes into public coffers and neither the A-G nor the AGC benefits.