Blogger's bid to engage Queen's Counsel rejected

Blogger's bid to engage Queen's Counsel rejected
Blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling

The High Court yesterday dismissed a bid by blogger Roy Ngerng to engage a Queen's Counsel (QC) for a High Court hearing on the damages he must pay for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The 34-year-old wanted Britain's QC Heather Rogers to argue his case at the hearing, slated for July 1 to 3 before Justice Lee Seiu Kin.

Mr Ngerng was found to have defamed PM Lee by suggesting, in a blog post, that he had misappropriated Central Provident Fund savings.

PM Lee is claiming aggravated damages, asserting malicious intent in the publication of the article.

The application for a QC was reported in The Straits Times last week. And the hearing on the application took place on Tuesday.

Yesterday, in his judgment, Justice Steven Chong ruled that although QC Rogers is eminent in the field of defamation law in the United Kingdom, she does not have special qualifications or experience to argue Mr Ngerng's case here as it is "local-centric".

For example, she lacks awareness of the local sociopolitical climate and the relevant local principles in defamation law, he said.

Further, recent reforms in the UK's defamation law have taken its position "even further away" from that of Singapore, which has long stopped relying on precedents of English courts in the assessment of damages for defamation cases here.

Said Justice Chong: "There is no material before me to suggest that Ms Rogers would be particularly conversant with the delicate matrix of factors which informs the award of damages for libel against public figures in Singapore."

But even if QC Rogers had the requisite knowledge, Justice Chong said he would still dismiss the application.

The case at this stage was not complex enough to require even a local Senior Counsel, let alone a QC, he said, noting that Mr Ngerng had - until now - been "content" with being represented by local lawyers who are not Senior Counsel.

This was so even during the hearings to determine liability, which is "more complex" in nature.

In calling for a QC, Mr Ngerng's lawyer George Hwang argued that it was the first time a blogger is being sued by the Prime Minister. The case, Mr Hwang said, also raises issues like the appropriate sum of damages as the defendant is not well-off.

But Justice Chong replied: "We must be careful not to confuse novelty with complexity."

He also said it was "staggering" to suggest that Mr Ngerng's lack of means should be a consideration in the amount of damages to be awarded.

He rejected Mr Hwang's point that a QC "skilled in cross-examination" was needed to question PM Lee to decide if there was malice on Mr Ngerng's part.

It was Mr Ngerng - not PM Lee - who should testify on this matter, the judge said, because "the assertion of malice is based entirely on matters said and done by (Mr Ngerng)".

He ordered Mr Ngerng to pay $6,000 to PM Lee for his unsuccessful bid. The blogger has already paid the Prime Minister $29,000 in legal fees and related expenses as ruled by the High Court.

This article was first published on June 12, 2015.
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