AHTC allowed to make some changes to claims in the case against its own town councillors

SINGAPORE – The Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) has failed in its bid to add to the claims against Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh and two other defendants in a long-running case it brought against its own town councillors.

But it succeeded in amending the claims against WP chairman Sylvia Lim and former party chief Low Thia Khiang, as well as the owners of its former managing agent.

AHTC’s claims against Mr Singh, and town councillors Chua Zhi Hon and Kenneth Foo were focused on several specific contracts, while its claims against Ms Lim, Mr Low and Ms How Weng Fan, the owner of FM Solutions and Services (FMSS), were focused on breaches of fiduciary duty.

In an application heard earlier this month, AHTC sought to claim against them for breaches of a duty to exercise due skill and care towards the town council in relation to the contract awarded to FMSS and payments made to the firm.

In an oral judgment released by High Court Judge Kannan Ramesh on Aug 20 and which was posted by Mr Singh on his Facebook page, the judge said the amendments pertaining to Mr Singh, Mr Chua and Mr Foo involved issues that were not dealt with during the trial.

Allowing this category of amendments would result in the introduction of new claims which the three defendants have not had a chance to address, he added, noting that judgment had been made in October last year.

In the case of Ms Lim, Mr Low and Ms How, however, he said the amendments did not do more than make clear the real controversy between them and the town council.

Hence, he allowed the amendments, as the issues raised had been addressed in the original judgement and did not amount to giving AHTC “a second bite of the cherry”, he added.

The bid to amend the claims is the latest development in the court case, which is now before the Court of Appeal.

Justice Ramesh’s October judgment had covered the lawsuit brought by AHTC as well as a parallel suit brought by Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) against the same defendants.

These two lawsuits had been tried together, but were not consolidated.

Noting this, Justice Ramesh said that while the claims made by both town councils arose from “a largely common bedrock of facts”, the cases of the two town councils differed in several material ways, with PRPTC’s claims being broader in scope.

Hence, some of the reliefs allowed in the October judgment applied only to PRPTC and not to AHTC.

In seeking the amendments, AHTC had said that they would bring its claims in line with those of PRPTC.

Since the breaches against PRPTC, which relate to then Punggol East constituency, are premised on the breaches against AHTC, the “ends of justice will not be served” if AHTC is not able to recover its loss when PRPTC is able to do so, said AHTC.

Punggol East was managed by the WP-run town council from 2013 to 2015, but had come under PRPTC after the PAP won the constituency in the 2015 General Election. The constituency has been split up following changes to electoral boundaries, and parts of it are now in Sengkang GRC.

In 2017, AHTC, represented by an independent panel, took the town councillors to court over $33 million in improper payments the town council had made under their watch. PRPTC soon followed with a parallel law suit.

AHTC had also said that since the amended claims are in line with PRPTC’s claims, the changes would not prejudice the defendants who had ample opportunity to deal with the issues during trial.

It added that the underlying facts on which the amendments are based had also been addressed during the trial.

Justice Ramesh, however, said that since the two lawsuits had not been consolidated, they were treated as separate proceedings and AHTC cannot amend its claims to mirror PRPTC’s claims after judgment had been delivered.

The reason is the proposed amendments raise new issues, which were not addressed by the judgment.

For instance, while Ms Lim, Mr Low, and Ms How and her late husband had been alleged to have set up a payment system that allowed FMSS to be paid without adequate checks, there was no allegation that Mr Singh, Mr Chua and Mr Foo had a part in setting up this system or approving payments under it.

Justice Ramesh said: “It is again inconceivable that allegations which are specifically directed at (Ms Lim, Mr Low, Ms How and the late Mr Loh) can be said to be implicitly made against (Mr Singh, Mr Chua and Mr Foo).”

Allowing such an amendment would mean the judgment would have to be amended or supplemented, which, in turn, requires the consideration of whether the trial has to be reopened for the purposes of considering fresh evidence and submissions, he said.

He added that even if he had allowed all the proposed amendments by AHTC, it does not mean the town council will be entitled to the reliefs that PRPTC had been awarded in the October judgment.

“Notably, AHTC has not offered an explanation… as to why it did not at the outset align its pleadings with PRPTC’s, and why the application has been brought so late in the day,” he said.

He ordered the parties to file submissions on costs within one week of the judgment.

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