Court halves damages payable by former club president

SINGAPORE - The Court of Appeal said on Monday that there was a need to guard against overcompensating for defamation, as it more than halved the damages payable by former Singapore Swimming Club president Freddie Koh to four club members.

The $105,000 each of the members was awarded by the High Court for being defamed was reduced to $50,000.

The Court of Appeal pointed to a 1998 defamation case involving then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

He was "a political figure of far higher standing than the plaintiffs" in the present case and yet was awarded a total of $110,000 in general and aggravated damages.

But the court ruled the four were entitled to more in aggravated damages than in Mr Goh's suit, as there was "clear malice" involved this time.

In a rare move, it also set aside $705,000 in costs that Mr Koh was ordered to pay and asked for the amount to be reassessed.

" is clear that the bills were taxed on a wholly erroneous footing. Justice cries for intervention on the part of this court," wrote Justice Chao Hick Tin, who heard the appeal alongside Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Justice V. K. Rajah.

The four club members - Mr Bernard Chan, Mr Robin Tan, Mr Nicholas Chong and Mr Michael Ho - successfully sued Mr Koh for defamation last year over statements published in the minutes of two meetings in 2008.

The High Court awarded each of them $105,000, of which $35,000 was in aggravated damages.

Mr Koh, defended by senior lawyer R. S. Bajwa, appealed to have the sum reduced while Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng cross-appealed to increase the award.

The court allowed Mr Koh's appeal, finding that the High Court had not given "sufficient weight" to factors that it itself had recognised.

These included the limited extent of the publication and the fact that no attack was made on the professional reputations of the four members.

The statements also referred to the management committee, which the four sat on, as a whole and did not single out anyone for specific blame.

The court then held that the High Court judge had come to a "wholly erroneous" estimate of the damages.

The Court of Appeal further ordered that legal costs to be paid by Mr Koh be reassessed on the rates chargeable had the case been heard in the Subordinate Courts.

This was because the damages given by the Court of Appeal to each of the plaintiffs was a sum that the Subordinate Courts could have awarded.

The court deemed this appropriate, "in accordance with the spirit that a party should not have to incur costs other than what is warranted by the substance or magnitude of the claim".

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