Debater who took his life treated unfairly
Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 24 May 2023
Author: Selina Lum
High Court says association didn't give him fair hearing before ban.
The High Court has ruled that a 31-year-old debater, who committed suicide after action was taken against him for alleged sexual misconduct, had not been given a fair hearing by the Debate Association (Singapore).
But the association said it will not issue an apology, as it had been acting to protect its members, despite the court suggesting it do so "in the spirit of reconciliation".
The court also dismissed a claim for damages by Mr Lucas Li's father, who sued the association in 2021 after his son, a prominent member of the debating community, fell to his death on Aug 8, 2018. That was a day after the association said in a statement that he had been "permanently banned" from its events because of inappropriate behaviour.
At the time, Mr Lucas Li was a government scholar employed by statutory board Enterprise Singapore. He had also openly discussed his mental health issues on social media.
His father, Mr Lawrence Li, sought unspecified damages, declarations that the association's actions were unlawful, and an apology in his suit for breach of contract and negligence.
On Tuesday, Justice See Kee Oon granted the declarations and ordered the ban set aside, describing it as unlawful, as it was in breach of the rules of natural justice. He said Mr Lucas Li was not given the opportunity to address the allegations or to defend himself against the ban. He was also not informed of the investigations that led to the ban.
Justice See accepted that the association had imposed the ban to prioritise the safety of its members, especially minors. He said: "Its primary motivation was to act responsibly, decisively and swiftly in taking preventive and remedial measures. The defendant's decision cannot be faulted in this regard.
"But in taking the steps the defendant did, the need for the deceased to be afforded his right to be heard and to avoid apparent bias through prejudgment was unfortunately obscured. The process was thus unfair and prejudicial to him."
Mr Li was the founder of a training programme for young debaters known as the Debate Development Initiative (DDI), and was its director from 2012 to 2014.
On Aug 7, 2018, the association's executive committee (Exco) posted a statement on its website and on Facebook saying that allegations had been made "by members of the debate community about inappropriate behaviour by a former DDI director".
The statement said that in the light of the findings of an audit report, the committee decided to permanently ban Mr Li from its events and to file a police report against him. The statement did not name him.
According to the report, he created and moderated WhatsApp chat group "DDI Darkness" for students.
The report found that Mr Li initiated sexual comments in the chat and led discussions which objectified DDI members, who were minors. Photographs of these members were shared for participants to comment on their physical characteristics, including genitalia.
The report also found that in July 2014, Mr Li pressured a member of the chat group to exchange explicit photos in a private chat, which culminated in a "physical sexual encounter". This individual testified for the association in the current case and confirmed the incident, which took place when he was 17.
On the claim of negligence, Justice See said Mr Lawrence Li did not succeed in showing that his son had suffered an acute stress reaction which led to his suicide.
"It is easy to look back on this incident with the benefit and perspicacity of hindsight and suggest that the defendant could have done a better job to ensure a balance between the deceased's interests and securing the safety of its members," said the judge, adding that the association did not dispute that various aspects could have been better handled.
"In my view, however, the defendant did not fall below the standard of care required of it in communicating and publicising the outcome of the investigations and disciplinary proceedings by way of the Exco statement."
Commenting on the decision, Mr Lawrence Li said he was heartened that the verdict affirmed his view that his son was unfairly treated by the association. "As suggested by the judge, I hope the association will extend an apology to my family and me for how Lucas was treated," said the 67-year-old, who was represented by Mr Paul Ong.
Mr Joel Law, president of the association, which was represented by Mr Darren Tan and Mr Silas Siew, maintained that it had not acted with malice. He said: "While we sympathise with the family of the deceased, we will not be extending an apology as a matter of principle, in the light of the court's findings that the primary motivation of the association at the material time was to protect its members."
Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.
Li See Kit Lawrence v Debate Association (Singapore)  SGHC 154