Parliament approved mostly technical changes to 51 existing laws yesterday under the Statutes (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, with one change in particular drawing the attention of Workers' Party MPs.
It was to align the Government Proceedings Act with other laws, by removing a limit to how much legal fees the Government can be awarded when it goes to court.
Previously, this amount was capped at the costs of two lawyers. Yesterday's amendment allows the Government to be awarded the legal costs of more than two lawyers.
Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang (both of Aljunied GRC) debated with Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah over the change.
They said it could end up deterring citizens from seeking legal redress against the Government because they are now faced with potentially higher legal costs.
Ms Indranee said the change would bring legal proceedings involving the Government in line with normal civil proceedings. She added that it is ultimately the courts that decide on the amount of costs to award, "so the safeguard there is that it lies in the hands of the courts".
But Ms Lim said an individual or private entity taking the Government to court usually does not have the same resources to call upon as the state. She said the Government should take "a broader view... even a magnanimous view" in deciding on the change.
Mr Low also raised the same points, saying: "Is it a good thing for Singapore that people who somehow feel victimised by the Government are intimidated by the cost, (because they) don't know how much the court is going to decide?"
Ms Indranee countered that not all who sue the Government have no money. "There are any number of parties with different situations and they may have different financial means," she said.
On why the change is necessary, she said each case requires a different amount of work from the lawyers, so it is best left to the courts to decide on costs in an objective and fair manner.
When costs are awarded in favour of the Government, it also means the other party has ultimately failed in its legal challenge, "meaning that that case should not have been brought in the first place", she noted.
She added: "When this Government is engaged in litigation...(it) does its best to be fair, objective and rational about it. So, it would not be our approach to use cost to be oppressive, but to seek cost where we think that it is fairly and justly incurred and to leave it to the courts to make the appropriate decision."
Speaker Halimah Yacob put an end to the exchange after a few rounds of clarifications by Ms Lim and Mr Low, saying all parties had made their point. "I don't think there's going to be any further development," she said.
This article was first published on May 10, 2016.
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