SINGAPORE: A new Bill that seeks to provide greater clarity on what constitutes contempt of court was tabled in Parliament by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah on Monday (Jul 11).
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill will consolidate the key elements of the law of contempt into statute. Currently, the law of contempt of court is based on previous court rulings.
The Ministry of Law said the Bill would ensure court orders are obeyed, individuals have the right to a fair trial and high levels of trust in Singapore’s legal system are preserved.
Those who are found guilty of court contempt at the High Court or Court of Appeal may be fined up to S$100,000 or jailed up to three years, or both. For other courts, the penalty may be up to a S$20,000 fine or imprisonment up to 12 months, or both.
LAW HELPS THE COMMON MAN: SHANMUGAM
The law exists to strengthen the legal process and protect the common man, said Law Minister K Shanmugam.
"You want an independent party, the judge, to decide on guilt and innocence," he said. "You don't want, as it were, a trial by the public. The public can have a view, but that view on guilt and innocence should not be expressed in a way that say influences the proceedings against you. So in a sense the common man is helped because the judicial system is strengthened."
Mr Shanmugam also said that while the Bill clarifies and crystallises processes, the law remains broadly the same. He listed out three ways more clarity will be provided.
Firstly, the Bill will set out the common law of contempt in writing. Secondly, the Bill provides a range of penalties applicable. Currently, penalties are decided on by the judge. Thirdly, the Bill gives specific powers on how court orders can be enforced.
"In terms of enforcement of court orders - and this is particuarly relevant I think - in the context of matrimonial orders or maintenance orders, the Bill gives specific powers on how they can be further enforced," said Mr Shanmugam. "Courts already have powers to enforce, but I think this gives a better framework."
When asked by reporters on Monday what impact the Bill would have on foreign media and netizens, Mr Shanmugam said it does not create a new law of contempt but “crystallises current legal position”.
“What is the current legal position - you cannot interfere and prejudice fair trial. I think most people would accept that is reasonable. You should not make allegations against the judge. I think most people would accept it, it’s reasonable," he said.
Mr Shanmugam added that the law applies equally to everyone.
"If you look at our judiciary, it’s held in high regard, both domestically and internationally. Whether it’s foreign media or local media or netizens or online, the law applies equally to all," he said. “It helps the mainstream media too, who have long said it would be good to be clear about what the framework of the law of contempt is."
BILL CLARIFIES WHAT DOES NOT CONSTITUTE CONTEMPT
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, neither is disobeying a court order due to an honest and reasonable failure to understand the obligations under the court order.
Mr Shanmugam also said that the Attorney-General will act with discretion for the law.
Said the Law Minister: "Let's say your son has been killed by someone, or you believe your son has been killed by someone. That person is facing charges. You say in anguish that 'This person is a murderer, and that he has killed my son and he ought to hang.' Now strictly speaking. that's contempt, but I think it will be unlikely that any attorney-general will prosecute such a person. People will give some latitude."
"At the same time, let's say a national newspaper or somebody with a broad reach starts a campaign to say that so and so should be found guilty, and he should hang, and mobilises public opinion in a significant way. You can see that there is a difference between the two. I'm sure the attorney-general will act in the second case," he added.
"But that's not leave and licence for people connected to the proceedings to go and say whatever they like. One has got to exercise discretion, and the attorney-general may well advise such a person 'Look you really ought not to be saying these things'. Maybe, they may advise."
The Law Ministry has consulted various stakeholders including the Judiciary, the Law Society of Singapore, the media industry and lawyers in drafting of the Bill.
A survey conducted by Government feedback portal REACH from June to July this year found that 9 in 10 Singaporeans of the 1,000 polled believe there is a need for effective enforcement of court orders. More than 8 in 10 Singaporeans are in favour of keeping outside influence from affecting on-going court proceedings.
The Bill will be read for a second time in August.