Bill on what constitutes contempt of court passed in Parliament

Bill on what constitutes contempt of court passed in Parliament

MPs voted on the Bill twice, after Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang called for a division two times.

SINGAPORE: The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was passed in Parliament on Monday (Aug 15) after a lengthy back-and-forth between Law Minister K Shanmugam and Workers' Party MPs.

Debate on the Bill lasted about 7 hours - one of the longest in recent memory. Past 9pm, Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang called for a division twice. Both times, 72 MPs voted in favour of the Bill and 9 against. Channel NewsAsia understands those who voted against the Bill are all from the WP and included its Non-Constituency Members of Parliament.

Earlier, Mr Shanmugam tackled several questions by MPs about the Bill, which will provide clarity on what constitutes contempt of court.

In moving the Bill for a second reading in the early afternoon, Mr Shanmugam said the law on contempt is the only criminal law in Singapore that is based on case law, which he described as "not satisfactory". "Criminal laws must be set out in statute," he said.

The Bill, which was first tabled in Parliament last month, aims to consolidate the key elements of the law of contempt into statute. Currently, the law of contempt of court is based on previous court rulings.

Under the Bill, there are three main types of conduct which constitute contempt of court. These are disobeying court orders, such as refusing to pay a sum of money ordered by the court, publishing material that interferes with on-going proceedings and making allegations of bias against the judges.

The Bill also clarifies what does not constitute contempt of court. For example, fair and accurate reporting of court proceedings is not contempt, and neither is disobeying a court order due to an honest and reasonable failure to understand the obligations under the court order.

In his speech, Mr Shanmugam addressed some of the points made in a Motion of Amendment that had been filed by three Nominated MPs. The three - Mr Kok Heng Leun, Assistant Professor Mahdev Mohan and Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin - had submitted 14 proposed changes to be made for the Bill.

Mr Shanmugam highlighted some examples of the suggestions made with regard to Clause 3(1)(b) of the Bill, which sets out sub judice contempt, which he said "in essence, deals with conduct".

He reiterated that the clause reflects existing common law, and "doesn't change the common law".

"Thus these suggestions are requests to change the law as it now stands," he said.

One of the proposed amendments highlighted by Mr Shanmugam was the suggestion to add in the word "seriously" before "prejudice", so that the contempt is actionable only if it "seriously prejudices" court proceedings. This, said Mr Shanmugam, is "not right".

"Consider what in effect is being proposed. If we agree to it, it is okay if the trial is prejudiced, so long as it is not seriously prejudiced," he said. "Think about it: A person is a defendant in a criminal trial. He could face years in prison. Do we really say it is okay to prejudice his right to a fair trial? What happens to the presumption of innocence and the basic right to a fair trial?"

"You balance that against someone's wish to comment on the proceedings, which prejudices the proceedings. You balance the chap in court, his rights, against another person's desire."

Mr Shanmugam also addressed another comment made against the provision: that it curtails free speech.

He said to "raise this spectre" is by itself not an argument, and said it is necessary to be specific - and explain what exactly is being curtailed.

"You can comment on policies, you can debate public issues. What you cannot do is to say something that actually prejudices a specific case, or has a serious, real risk of prejudicing a specific case," he said. "That legal position has worked well for us all these years."

Mr Shanmugam added that most people who get charged in the State Courts are ordinary people. "They don't write fancy blogs. They are not lawyers, MPs or journalists. Not usually anyway. They find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Do we really want to say to the ordinary man in the street that it is okay for his trial to be prejudiced, and it is okay for him to be unfairly treated, because it is incidental to someone else's right to comment?"

"The people who are the loudest on these issues are usually the people who can take care of themselves," he added. "We are here to protect all Singaporeans, including those voices which are not heard."

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Source: CNA/lc