High Court's unsealing of papers 'instructive'

THE High Court's decision to unseal documents in a case which has links to the recent interest-rate rigging scandal has provided "important" guidance on when members of the public, including the media, may inspect court files in civil proceedings.

Law firm Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow highlighted the decision in the current issue of its dispute resolution legal update to clients, pointing out that Justice Lee Seiu Kin's decision underlines the practice of "open justice" when allowing inspection of court documents.

"Open justice requires that decisions by (judicial officers) in court proceedings be amenable to scrutiny to members of the public through inspection of documents that were filed in court... This serves to promote public confidence in the administration of justice, " wrote Justice Lee in his decision grounds.

When documents are filed ahead of a hearing, the public as well as media interest will lead to applications to the court for permission to inspect the files.

Such interest becomes acute in high-profile cases. The court needs to decide on the extent to which the documents can be inspected before the trial proper.

In the case at hand, former employee Tan Chi Min had sued the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) claiming he was wrongfully fired over allegations that he helped rig the London interbank offered rate, a benchmark for interest rates around the world.

Last year, RBS successfully applied to seal "all affidavits and/or exhibits in the case" until the end of official probes in the US and Britain on the scandal. But in August, the High Court lifted the order as the investigations by US and UK regulators had concluded.

Justice Lee made clear that not all court documents are open to inspection the "moment they are filed". He explained that affidavits filed in the court will be available to the public only after these have been admitted as evidence at the trial or during pre-trial hearings behind closed doors.

Other documents filed such as statements of claims , summonses and pleadings would be allowed the moment they are filed at the court registry, provided there are no seal orders in place.

This would enable the public or the media to "properly apprise themselves in advance " of the issues which the litigating parties intend to put before the court.

Mr Tan's suit against RBS is ongoing.

vijayan@sph.com.sg

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