Ruling on Tang may set a precedent
Straits Times. Nov 15, 1997
BY Pang Gek Choo
THE Appeal Court's ruling to cut by about half the damages that lawyer Tang Liang Hong has to pay for defaming 11 People's Action Party leaders is not really a landmark decision, as no law has been overturned, lawyers and political observers said yesterday.
But the judgment is significant, they said, in that it may set a precedent for future defamation cases, and help "keep a sense of proportion'' to the quantum that will be awarded.
Nominated MP and law lecturer Simon Tay said: "In order to be a landmark case, it must have wide-reaching implications. In this case, the quantum of damages was reduced, but Tang was still found guilty.''
However, lawyer Sriniwas Rai, another nominated MP, noted that the decision was significant in that the "sting'' of the previous judgment had been taken away.
They were reacting to the court's judgment on Wednesday, which reduced the $7.175 million in damages awarded in May against Mr Tang to $3.63 million.
In their judgment, Justices M.Karthigesu, L.P.Thean and G.P.Selvam held Mr Tang's statements against the PAP men as defamatory.
But they reduced the awards as they found the damages to be "hugely disproportionate' to the injury caused to the PAP plaintiffs.
They also found that the amounts awarded had been overblown because of the multiple counting of aggravating factors, particularly in cases where the plaintiffs had multiple suits.
Commenting on this, observers noted that what the Court of Appeal had done was merely to re-affirm well-established legal principles on the award of damages.
As a litigation lawyer pointed out: "In accident cases, if you suffer just a broken arm, the court may award you $5000.
"But if you suffer a broken leg, broken ribs and a fractured skull, it does not mean that you will be awarded $5000 for each injury. Your pain will be taken into account altogether.''
Observers also noted that the ruling was unlikely to have a significant impact on the political climate here, as the court had not overturned the judgment that Mr Tang's statements were defamatory.
Law lecturer Kevin Tan said: "It only goes to the quantum of damages, meaning that it simply says, "Sure it was defamation, but it was not as serious as was thought to be'.''
How one viewed the judgment, they noted, depended on whether one saw the glass as half-full or half-empty.
On the one hand, some might consider the reduction of damages as significant as it showed that "the PAP does not always get its way''.
But others would argue that the amount reduced was not substantial enough.
As a political observer, who declines to be named, said: "Whether it is $7 million or $3 million is not very much different - the amount is enough to make anyone bankrupt.''
Agreeing, a lawyer said that it did not take away the "chilling effect'' in the political climate here, referring to the words used by Mr Tang's lawyer, Queen's Counsel Charles Gray.
The implication of the judgment, said those interviewed, would be seen in future cases.
But they were hopeful that the courts in future might be more careful in awarding large sums which overtop those of previous cases, as the Appeal Court had warned against.
Mr Rai said: "Being the highest tribunal in the land, a judicial precedent has been set which will be binding on all lower courts, which will now have to take notice of the quantum of damages awarded.''