New law defines contempt of court, spells out penalties
SINGAPORE — Against a backdrop where social media could quickly amplify opinions on ongoing court cases, the Government has introduced a Bill to spell out when these comments would be in contempt of court by dint of prejudicing the outcome of the case.
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on Monday (July 11), also sets out two other types of contempt of court, namely, when court orders are not complied with and when judges are accused of bias or impropriety without basis.
If the Bill is passed, contempt of court will become a criminal offence, where the range of penalties are laid out. Currently, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) seeks the court’s consent to commence contempt of court proceedings and the punishment is at the discretion of the judge hearing the case.
Speaking to the media after the Bill was tabled, Law Minister K Shanmugam said the proposed law does not “create anything new”, rather, it “crystallises the current legal position”. He added: “It is the one area of criminal law which is based on judge-made case law and we thought it’s time to make sure that’s crystalised, put in the framework, set out the law as it is in writing.”
The Bill states that as soon as a writ is filed for civil proceedings or when a suspect has been charged with a criminal offence, individuals cannot comment on the case — relating to guilt or facts that have not been established by a court — or it would constitute sub judice, which falls under contempt of court. The curb is lifted only when the court proceedings have concluded, such as after an appeal has been heard and decided.
Mr Shanmugam noted that the proposed law does not constrain the right to criticise a judgment or law. What it does is to make it clear that an individual cannot say, without basis, that a judge is biased or motivated by personal considerations because there is a “need to maintain the integrity of the judiciary and protect (them from this) sort of allegations,” he added.
Should there be a genuine complaint about the judge, there are appropriate channels to deal with it, such as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
Under the Bill, the High Court or Court of Appeal will be able to fine a person up to S$100,000 and/or jail of up to three years for contempt. Other courts such as the State Courts will be able to impose fines up to S$20,000, and/or jail of up to 12 months.
Other enforcement measures proposed include an apology to the court. The court will decide on the form of the apology, such as face-to-face before a judge, or a notice published in the newspapers. The Bill also clarifies the defence for each type of contempt. For example, fair and accurate reporting of court proceedings is not considered contempt.
Asked if the influence of social media has made it more urgent to enact court contempt into the statutes, the Ministry of Law said the matter has been “in the works for several years”.
In 2010, then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong had mooted the idea during his speech at the opening of the legal year.
The issue of sub judice — where public discussion of a case under judicial consideration may affect or prejudice the outcome of proceedings — has prompted several warnings in recent years from the AGC.
For instance, in 2013, the AGC urged the public and media not to make or report any statements on the pending Coroner’s Inquiry into the death of American researcher Shane Todd that could be construed as an attempt to “improperly influence the decision” of the State Coroner, or cast aspersions on the independence of the proceedings. Earlier this year, when Mr Shanmugam addressed public discussions on the Benjamin Lim case, he said false allegations had been spread by some parties.
Commenting on the move to enact legislation on contempt of court, criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam said it will ensure people will not “recklessly make comments”.
Law Society president Thio Shen Yi added: “The common law already defines the law of contempt, but a statute consolidates the law in one place.”
Ms Tania Chin, a partner with Withers KhattarWong, said the pace at which information gets uploaded on social media these days means that unverified information can spread quickly. “There is a need to ensure that opinions and pieces about a case do not unfairly prejudice the accused person or litigant,” she added.