The politically-charged Hougang By-election Case has been ongoing since March, when Hougang resident Madam Vellama Marie Muthu filed an application for the declaration as well as a mandatory order for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to call a by-election in Hougang within three months or a reasonable time. However, a comedy of errors emerged on Monday’s hearing (16 July 2012).
Comedy of errors
Firstly, a representative of the Law Society attempted to intrude on the proceedings of the case. Former Law Society council member Mr Wong Siew Hong tried in vain to get the presiding judge Justice Philip Pillai’s attention during the proceedings and was finally granted audience at the end of the proceedings.
Secondly, it turned out that psychiatrist Dr Calvin Fones had written to the Law Society that he is of the opinion his patient M. Ravi, who is also the applicant’s lawyer of the Hougang By-election Case, is medically unfit to practice law. “The Law Society informed the judge of the contents of the letter as it felt that it was in the public interest to do so, and as officers of the court,” a spokesperson said.
Thirdly, the letter was leaked onto social media by Reform Party Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam who participated in the hearing as a member of the audience.
What went wrong
The Law Society’s choice of intrusion was certainly baffling. The established procedure requires the Law Society to pass a resolution that states it is satisfied that the lawyer’s fitness to practice appears to be impaired by his physical or medical condition, followed by serving Mr Ravi a notice under the Legal Profession Act and then filing an application to the Court so that a judge may order Mr Ravi to be medically examined by a doctor appointed by the Court. The outcome of the established procedure would have led to the adjournment of cases until Mr Ravi’s fitness to practice law could be established.
The Law Society also confirmed that no application was made, so it begs the question if the Law Society Council indeed has convened a meeting to consider Mr Ravi’s fitness to practice law was impaired. Without the minutes of the meeting, it cannot be established if Mr Wong was appointed to act on the behalf of the Law Society during Monday’s proceedings. Moreover, with or without the backing of the Law Society, Mr Wong does not have the power or privilege to intrude on court proceedings.
Communication between doctors and patients is generally considered privileged and confidential. Although both ethics and the law agree that the right to confidentiality is not absolute, doctors may disclose confidential information about patients under specific circumstances:
Patient waiver: Doctors may disclose confidential information with the patient’s consent. This is the most common form of disclosure made by doctors who routinely file medical reports with insurers and employers.
Specific diseases and injuries: Communicable diseases may be monitored by public health agencies. Any injury sustained in the course of a criminal offence such as sexual assault or child abuse must be reported to law enforcement agencies.
Threats of self-harm: If disclosure will help prevent harm, there can be legal and ethical justification for disclosure if a patient threatens harm against himself.
Endangered third parties: If disclosure will help prevent harm, there can be legal and ethical justification for disclosure if a patient threatens harm against others.
However, it is unclear if Dr Calvin Fones’ disclosure satisfy any of the above criteria.
In response to the public disclosure of the letter, Mr Ravi revealed that Dr Fones had examined Mr Ravi for 10 minutes on Saturday (14 July 2012) following his relapse on Friday (13 July 2012). If Dr Fones was indeed concerned of Mr Ravi’s fitness to practice law, 10 minutes is certainly too short for any psychiatric review to issue a serious statement. A typical psychiatric review for such matters usually lasts at least an hour.
Last but not least, Dr Fones’ letter to the Law Society is not an affidavit, so it does not qualify for the privilege of immunity against defamation. By disclosing Mr Ravi’s medical condition during a trial at which Mr Ravi is counsel, this has the effect of implying that Mr Ravi is incapable of fulfilling his legal duties as counsel. Mr Jeyaretnam was certainly not helpful when he leaked the letter onto social media as this action would propagate the perception that Mr Ravi is unfit to practice law. Perhaps Mr Jeyaretnam wasn’t cognisant of the fact that the law requires reporting of judicial proceedings to be fair and accurate. His act of publishing the letter has skewed the public perception of the Hougang By-election Case by undermining the public’s confidence in Mr Ravi to act competently!
Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Singapore Newsroom.