‘Decision is a small victory for Vellama and her lawyer’

In what lawyer M Ravi described as a "historic" decision, High Court judge Philip Pillai on Friday ordered that no costs be awarded against Vellama Marie Muthu.

In February, Vellama brought the case to the courts and sought a court declaration that the prime minister does not have unfettered discretionary powers to decide when to call by-elections in Singapore.

Her case was dismissed by the same judge in August. "Should the Prime Minister decide to call an election to fill an elected Member vacancy, he has a discretion as to when to call it," Pillai said in his 50-page judgement.

Subsequently, the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) filed for costs of S$10,000 to be ordered against Vellama. It was an amount which Vellama, who works as a part-time cleaner, would not be able to afford. Prospects of bankruptcy loomed as she appealed for financial help from the public.

Fortunately for her, Pillai ruled on 2 November that no costs will be ordered against her. The judge said where there are legal questions of "genuine public concern" raised, "it may be inappropriate to make a costs order against the applicant even where the judicial review is wholly unsuccessful", as was in Vellama's case.

In a statement to the media, Ravi's law firm said, "Justice Pillai's decision sets a new precedent in Asian Jurisprudence to protect lay-litigants from costs in constitutional challenges. In his ruling, Justice Pillai determined that Madam Vellama had not challenged the election laws based on her own interest but this public law issue was a matter of general importance."

The important point in Pillai's decision is that ordinary citizens are not financially penalized for asserting their constitutional rights, which was what Vellama had sought to do — to turn to the courts to assert her right to parliamentary representation through a by-election in her constituency which seat had been vacated.

Although the courts eventually ruled against her, the fact that Pillai has decided that no costs be ordered against her — effectively granting her a protective cost order — means that members of the public who bring matters of "general importance" to the public will not face prohibitive legal costs.

Nonetheless, cases like this one are not without their financial costs, which for Vellama has amounted to some S$3,000 so far. With the case going to the appeals court, a further S$3,000 is expected to be incurred, including filing fees. She has thus turned to the public to seek help with this. (See here.)

Pillai's decision is a small victory for Vellama and her lawyer, M Ravi, who had taken up the case at a time when the certainty of a by-election in Hougang was in doubt. Even the Workers' Party (WP), which had sacked its Member of Parliament for the ward, Yaw Shin Leong, did not seem to push for a by-election there. Also, given the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) historical preference to forego by-elections, Hougang seemed destined to be suspended in uncertainty, as far as parliamentary representation was concerned.

When the case first went to court, some accused Ravi of taking up a case which had no merits, and that Vellama was only in it for publicity — although it was unclear what she would want publicity for. As the case progressed, however, their actions have been vindicated. First, the judge agreed that there was a case to be heard, dismissing the AGC's contention that there was none. Secondly, that Pillai has ordered no costs against Vellama is also another victory in that citizens now have a precedent for future similar cases which they can refer to. And the consequences of Pillai's decision go beyond the shores of Singapore.

"For the first time, the court has dealt with the issue of whether lay litigants are protected from court implications," Ravi said. "This will be a decision which can be relied upon in other countries around Asia as well as the Commonwealth."

And for this, Vellama deserves to be congratulated and her appeal for financial assistance to defray the legal costs supported.

While no one would or could conclusively say that it was her bringing the case to court which had forced the government to call a by-election in Hougang, still her actions have made it clearer where we the ordinary citizens stand, as far as the courts are concerned, when it comes to defending and asserting our constitutional rights.

For this, Vellama and M Ravi deserve our appreciation and support.

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