By: Andrew Loh
In 1986, the late JB Jeyaretnam asked the then Defence Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in Parliament about the death of a serviceman. BG Lee replied and explained why the government cannot be sued.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: And the Coroner’s inquiry will in due course take place.
As for the Government Proceedings Act and why the Government cannot be sued, we do not follow British precedent blindly. We follow it when there are good reasons to do so. Why can you not sue the State in case a serviceman dies in training or in action? The reason as given by the British is that in this case, the State is fundamentally different from a private citizen, and therefore cannot be treated on the same standing. I will quote here from a submission in the House of Lords in 1947, when the Crown Proceedings Bill was introduced in Britain and it applies to us.
‘The private citizen does not have the same kind of responsibility as the Crown for protecting the public. He does not have the care of public safety. He does not have the defence of the Realm to consider. In these matters, the functions of the Crown involve duties and responsibilities which no subject is required to undertake and these distinctions are inevitably, necessarily and properly reflected by various provisions in the Bill.’
In other words, that is the reason why you cannot sue the Government under such cases. And to be able to sue the Government under such cases would be destructive to the morale, discipline and efficiency of the service. We concur with these views and we have adopted the same practice.
Mr Jeyaretnam: And cover up evidence.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: An alternative could be to sue an individual instead of the Crown under such circumstances, namely, the officer involved who gave the order. However, this is also not allowed, for a specific reason, namely, that if we propose to do so, any officer or soldier who is making an operational decision, is placed in a difficult position. And in training you make decisions which are just the same as operational ones. You have to have the absolute confidence that you can make the judgment correctly. You cannot afford always to have at the back of your mind the thought that, “If I do it wrong, will I be sued? Will the Government not back me? Should I have to appear in court?” That is the reason why the law stands as it is.
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