Natural Justice Explained: Your Right to a Fair & Unbiased Hearing
“Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done… Nothing is to be done which creates even a suspicion that there has been an improper interference with the course of justice.”
This was the famous dicta in a landmark case (Rex v. Sussex Justices ) in which a conviction was quashed. In the case, the justices had gathered with the deputy clerk during decision-making. This was, however, deemed improper as the deputy clerk had ties with the firm engaged to sue the respondent (who was convicted). The deputy clerk’s position made it impossible for him to give impartial advice and whether or not he actually gave advice or influenced the justices during the decision-making did not matter.
And this, rightfully, is the basis for the rules of natural justice. Decisions have to be made on a fair and unbiased basis otherwise, there is no justice to be seen.
This article will discuss:
What is Natural Justice?
Natural justice is a legal concept for the rule against bias and the right to a fair hearing. When there is a breach of natural justice, it means that the legal procedures were either tainted by bias or there was a failure to give all parties adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard.
If the rules of natural justice are not observed, and justice is therefore not seen to be done, then public confidence in the legal system would be eroded and may lead to objections, and riots. A country cannot stand on strong ground if its channels of justice are not seen to be dependable.
In Singapore, the concept of natural justice has its roots in legislation and common law. The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore contains articles providing for the fundamental rules of natural justice. These rules apply to all kinds of legal proceedings.
Principles of Natural Justice
There are two broad principles of natural justice captured in Latin maxims, namely:
- Nemo iudex in causa sua – rule against bias
- Audi alteram partem – right to a fair hearing
1. Rule against bias
Bias can be either actual or apparent. Accusations of bias may concern:
- Past contact between the parties and the adjudicator;
- The conduct of the adjudicator throughout the proceedings or even outside the proceedings;
- A predetermination or prejudgment tainting the final decision; or
- The adjudicator who has a monetary, proprietary or even a personal interest in the decision.
Actual bias, in practice, is however hard to prove as the law prefers not to allow the questioning of a judge about extraneous factors influencing his decision. You will also notice that all decisions are always adequately and appropriately supported with proper legal reasoning and not based on the “feel” of the judge. Unless there are express statements made by the adjudicator relating to the proceedings, i.e. openly supporting one side, it would understandably be difficult to accuse actual bias.
In one High Court decision of Chee Siok Chin and another v AG where the complainant’s lawyer requested for the removal of the judge on the basis of actual bias, the lawyer had complained that he was interrupted during proceedings, and the judge had allowed it, and the judge had prejudged the Notice of Appeal as she shook her head, signalling disapproval, when the complainant’s lawyer handed her the Notice of Appeal. The judge refused to recuse herself and, while highlighting the importance of not indulging complainants in choosing judges on the basis of bias, the judge clarified that she had simply directed the complainant’s lawyer to continue with his submissions as a way of diffusing the interruption, and that no one else had seen her shake her head.
Apparent bias may stem from conduct or behaviour which may suggest that the adjudicator is biased. An obvious example is if the adjudicator is exceedingly polite towards one party but treats the other party with disdain.
2. Right to a fair hearing
The right to a fair hearing requires all parties to be given sufficient notice and opportunities to be fully heard.
Disciplinary committees, whether in societies, associations or even MCSTs, are not bound by any written laws relating to evidence, and typically conduct these proceedings internally sometimes with their self-enacted rules and mechanisms.
There may therefore be instances where the complainant may feel that he was not given his full right to cross-examine the other party. This may happen when the tribunal interjects too frequently to stop a line of questioning it feels is irrelevant to the case. Otherwise, the complainant may feel that the tribunal failed to consider all arguments canvassed if, for example, some arguments were not discussed or evaluated in the final decision. This bears noting that even if the tribunal is of the view that certain arguments are ambiguous or irrelevant, it should seek clarification during the proceedings. The tribunal should also take special care in considering and discussing even arguments canvassed so as to avoid a challenge of a breach of natural justice.
For instance, a breach of natural justice was found when an arbitral tribunal failed to provide the complainant with an opportunity to address the tribunal on a claim raised at the last minute before rendering the award. Furthermore, the arbitral tribunal was aware that the complainant had not addressed the claim.
Application of Natural Justice in a Case Study: Li See Kit Lawrence v Debate Association (Singapore) 
The rules of natural justice were most discussed in the case of Lawrence Li (representing Lucas Li) v Debate Association (Singapore).
Lucas Li was a programme director with the Debate Association (Singapore) and had represented Singapore in international debate competitions. He was also the founding director of the Debate Development Initiative (DDI). On 7 August 2018, the association’s execution committee (“Exco”) issued a public statement about Lucas, without naming him. The statement, titled “Allegations of Misconduct Against A Former Director of the Debate Development Initiative”. This statement was published on the association’s website and the Singapore Debaters’ Facebook page by the then-president of the Exco.
The statement stated that Lucas Li was banned from all events held by the association, including any competitions or camps he co-organised because of alleged inappropriate behaviour, i.e. sexual harassment. The Exco was also going to file a police report against Lucas Li. Although Lucas Li was not expressly named, the statement contained sufficient details, i.e. his position and background, for the public to determine the person mentioned was Lucas Li. The execution committee had also notified Lucas Li’s employer of these allegations. Lucas Li took his life the next day.
His father, Lawrence Li, then filed a suit against the Debate Association. Among other grounds, the claim stated that the decision to publish the statement was unlawful as there were no terms in the association’s constitution giving it power to conduct disciplinary or investigative proceedings or take disciplinary action against a member. Further, even if the association was empowered to make such a decision, it was unlawful as it was, among others, in breach of the rules of natural justice.
Lucas was not given his right to a fair hearing. The execution committee had failed, refused or neglected to give Lucas adequate notice of the allegations against him. Neither did it afford Lucas an opportunity to respond to these allegations whether by way of an appeal or a review process. Whilst this right to a fair hearing may be dispensed with if there is an urgent need to protect the interests of third parties (in this case the Debate Association alleged that they did so to protect the interests of minors in the association), there should have been an express indication to Lucas regarding the availability to appeal or an opportunity to make representations.
The court also found that there was apparent bias. The Exco had prejudged Lucas when they did not request for his stand or evidence before making the decision. Furthermore, the association’s Constitution had a formal mechanism in place for disciplinary actions which was a general meeting with its members.
A judge once said, “The rules of natural justice are universal rules that govern the conduct of human behaviour”. Everyone is entitled to a fair and just trial and, is innocent until proven guilty. These are worth noting if you are ever caught in a disciplinary proceeding or issued an award by a tribunal or adjudicator which you feel may be unreasonable. All arguments should be heard, discussed and considered, and the adjudicating body should be an independent one.
If you are facing unsupported allegations of any sort, or have been issued a decision or award you feel is unjust or unreasonable, please do seek legal recourse or legal advice on how best to challenge the decision or award on administrative legal grounds. If you are unsure about the situation and particularly whether legal recourse is available, you can always consult a civil litigation lawyer for assistance.
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