A High Court judge ruled that the actions of the Debate Association (Singapore) towards a prominent member who eventually killed himself were unfair and prejudicial as the association had not afforded the member his right to be heard.
The 31-year-old, Lucas Li Guangsheng, killed himself after allegations of sexual misconduct against him were surfaced by the association.
His father, Lawrence Li See Kit, sued the association for damages over the death of his son, claiming that the association's actions were "grossly negligent and reckless" and had caused him to suffer an acute stress reaction before his suicide.
Even though Justice See Kee Oon agreed that the ban and the announcement were unlawful, he believed that there was not enough evidence that the association's actions were responsible for the suicide.
Hence, he did not acede to the father's claim for damages.
On Aug. 7, 2018, the association's executive committee (exco) issued a public statement titled "Allegations of Misconduct Against a Former Director of the Debate Development Initiative".
The statement did not name Lucas but referred to a former director of the association's debate development initiative (DDI), which he founded.
The statement said that Lucas had created and invited students to a WhatsApp group named "DDI Darkness", where he initiated sexual discussions. According to the statements, Lucas also objectified DDI members who were minors and commenting on their physical characteristics, including their genitalia.
The statement also claimed that the discussions culminated in one "physical sexual encounter" initiated by Lucas. According to court documents, Lucas arranged to meet a 17-year-old DDI member and they masturbated together in a toilet cubicle.
The exco said in light of an "audit report" made by "two senior members of the debate community", they decided to file a police report, ban Lucas from all association events and notify all partner organisations to do the same.
Father claimed there was no "natural justice"
Lucas was notified of the ban the same day before the exco released the statement on Aug. 7, 2018.
He committed suicide the next day.
Paul Ong from Paul Ong Chambers LLC, who represented Lucas' father, pointed out that the Debate Association did not give Lucas a reasonable opportunity to respond.
Ong claimed that the actions of the Debate Association did not serve "natural justice" and served "no purpose other than to embarrass, humiliate and cause distress" to Lucas.
Ong added that the complaint regarding a "physical sexual encounter" was not credible as the "complainant" admitted in or around March 2015 that there was no inappropriate physical contact with the deceased.
Ong also argued that the "auditors" appointed by the exco to conduct an independent audit of the DDI programme were active members of the debate community who knew Lucas and were not in a position to conduct an "independent, fair and impartial investigation".
Ong also highlighted that the actions of the exco went beyond the scope of its Constitution and were thus unlawful.
Association said they had to protect their members
In its defence, the association's lawyers from Invictus Law Corporation, Darren Tan Tho Eng, Silas Siew Wei Ying and Joshua Tan Ming En, argued that rules of "natural justice" should not be applied with "full rigour" as the association was an informally run non-profit voluntary organisation.
They highlighted that the association members were mainly minors and young adults who paid no membership fees and the association had the responsibility to protect them.
They further argued that the association had no knowledge of Lucas' pre-existing vulnerability to psychological harm, and it was not proven that the association's actions caused Lucas to suffer psychiatric harm.
Judge: Not right to prejudge
On the point of natural justice, See pointed out that the association was reasonable to prioritise urgent action in light of evidence that objectively revealed "sexual impropriety" on the part of Lucas, as the association needed to ensure the safety of the association members.
However, even if urgent circumstances require an exception to a fair hearing, See explained that there ought to be contemplation of some form of appeal or review process, which availability was not expressly communicated to Lucas.
Further, See highlighted that it was "plain and obvious" that the exco had "prejudged" Lucas, which can be seen when they did not ask Lucas for any evidence before making their decision.
He pointed to the "emphatic but perhaps presumptuous" words of an exco director, who said, "There was simply no fathomable explanation that [Lucas] could have mustered to justify his actions, even if given the opportunity to do so."
See agreed that the actions of the exco did not serve "natural justice" and were not empowered to ban Lucas as the association's Constitution stated that disciplinary actions should go through a general meeting with its members.
Not enough evidence to prove statements caused death
While See ordered the association to declare that the ban and notifications to its partners were unlawful, he did not allow the father's claim for damages.
He explained that even though a psychiatric doctor had opined, four years after Lucas' death, that Lucas was suffering from acute stress disorder before his suicide, the doctor had only relied on hearsay accounts from his parents.
See also believed there was not enough evidence to show Lucas had a relapse from his previous psychiatric conditions.
Further, he pointed out that the association had achieved a reasonable balance in protecting Lucas' identity by not naming him in the statement and only releasing their statement to those the association sought to protect.
Judge suggests apology
On the issue of apology, See pointed out that the Court of Appeal had recognised that "a defendant should not be compelled to apologise against his will as the very spirit of an apology is that it must come from the heart, something which the defendant wishes to do on account of the wrong he has done to the plaintiff".
He highlighted that the association had denied every claim the father made and hence had no acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
See thus viewed that it would not be appropriate for him to order the defendant to apologise.
However, as he did find that the association had breached the rules of "natural justice", he suggested the association consider extending an apology to Lucas' family "in the spirit of reconciliation".
Father calls for apology, association declines as "matter of principle"
Speaking to Mothership through his lawyer Ong, Lucas' father said,
"I am heartened that the verdict affirms my view that my son was unfairly treated by the association and that the laws of natural justice were breached. As suggested by the judge, I hope the association will extend an apology to my family and me for how Lucas was treated. We will study the verdict further and consider the next steps."
The association, however, told Mothership that it would not issue an apology.
"While we sympathise with the family of the deceased, we will not be extending an apology as a matter of principle, in light of the Court’s findings that the primary motivation of the association at the material time was to protect its members."
The association also emphasised that it was reasonable for it to prioritise urgent action in light of the objective evidence, and that it had not acted with any malice against the deceased.
The association's lawyers added,
"This is an unfortunate case and it has been a long two years for the parties. We hope that the judgment will effectively bring closure to all parties involved."
Top photo via Tributes to Lucas Li/Facebook