Man gets 3 extra strokes of the cane, decides to sue Prison and Home Affairs Ministry

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Man sues Prisons, Home Affairs Ministry
[2008] 28 Mar_ST

A MAN who was caned three times more than what he was sentenced to by the courts has sued the Singapore Prison Service and the Home Affairs Ministry.

Lawyers for Mr Dickson Tan, 21, filed the suit on Wednesday in the High Court, which handles civil claims of over $250,000.

Mr Tan was sentenced in February last year to nine months' jail and five strokes of the cane for abetting an illegal moneylender in harassing a debtor.

A month later, despite his alleged protests, Mr Tan was caned eight times by the prison authorities.

When Mr Tan was released from prison and put on home detention two months later, his mother hired lawyer Joseph Chen to seek legal redress.

The Government admitted that an error had been made and expressed regret at the mistake.

The Law and Home Affairs ministries explained that the mistake came about because a court clerk inadvertently wrote the wrong figure on a court document relating to the sentence.

Mr Tan initially wanted $3 million in compensation, but then said he would lower his claim to $300,000.

Several rounds of negotiations apparently failed to produce any satisfactory payout for Mr Tan, who then decided to sue.

In court papers obtained by The Straits Times, Mr Tan said the authorities 'failed to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence'.

The lawsuit claims that the prison authorities should have checked with the Subordinate Courts about the correct number of strokes before going ahead with the caning.

Mr Tan claimed that he was interviewed by three senior prison officers at the Admiralty West Prison before the caning took place on March 29 last year.

He claimed that he told all three that there was a mistake in the number of strokes he was sentenced to, but was told that the records in the file 'could not be wrong'.

On the day of the caning, Mr Tan's mother and half-sister visited him and he told them about the extra strokes.

His sister, Miss Yeow Ling Ling, said she called the court clerk, Mr Kelvin Quek, who allegedly confirmed with her that it should be five strokes, instead of eight.

According to Mr Tan's writ, Mr Quek told Miss Yeow that he would call the prison to inform them but, by then, the caning had already been carried out

Mr Quek acknowledged his mistake and resigned.

The district judge who signed the Warrant of Commitment, which informed the prison of the sentence meted out, was also formally cautioned and restricted to hearing civil cases.

Among other things, Mr Tan is claiming damages for medical injuries, including depression and paranoid delusions, for which he subsequently received psychiatric treatment at Adam Road Hospital.

The court papers said the Government has paid a sum of $8,000 as interim payment, which was understood to have been partly used for Mr Tan's medical bills.

Maybe next time it'll be the death penalty or perhaps a really long jail term. Apparently, Mr Tan has decided to sue the Singapore Prison Service and the Home Affairs Ministry.

The only possible reason I can see for the Home Affairs Ministry being held liable for this mistake is because the court clerk was responsible for the error. But that aside, how exactly can the Singapore Prison Service be held liable? According to the Mr Tan's lawyer,
1. It is the duty of the prison authority to check with the Subordinate Courts, not with the records in their files, which very obviously could be wrong.
2. The prison authorities failed to do so
On top of that, the prison authority should also be liable for failing to provide Mr Tan with adequate representation for himself. If such a serious matter is in dispute, a person should at least be granted the ability to defend himself. In this case, the three supposedly senior prison officers simply waved him off saying their records couldn't possibly be wrong. After all, a person in prison is still a person, who still deserves his basic rights, such as that to defend himself.

There is very clearly a flaw in the prison system, where the standard procedure for handling such disputes is for the prison officer to simply wave it off without adequate investigation. What if a convict is jailed for a term longer than he is truly sentenced for. Let's say the intended jail term was 1 year, but because mr clerk sneezed and accidentally hit the "0" button, now it's 10 years. Under the circumstances where mr convict has relatives to bail him out, maybe he will not have to serve the full 10 years. But what if mr convict has no relatives, no avenue whatsoever to contest the jail sentence? Will he then be confined to the prison for 9 extra years?

If anything, this case might also set a precedent (assuming none has already been set) regarding how victims of wrongful punishments are compensated. In my opinion, a simple fee to compensate the victim is insufficient. A punitive fine should also be imposed upon the responsible authorities in question and necessary action should be taken on those who fail to uphold their duty as administrators of justice. In this case, the court clerk did resign, which can be considered a sufficient punishment in this case. However, will a simple resignation and a few words of apology be sufficient if the case is a much different one, where the excess in punishment is much more severe. Questionable indeed.