Sunday 24 June 2012

Should the rich pay higher fines?

By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 23 Jun 2012

IN THE wake of the Woffles Wu case, National University of Singapore law lecturer and criminal law expert Michael Hor talks about some of the challenges of introducing a system of fines that are pegged to a person's income.
- In 2010, a Swiss court fined a Ferrari driver £ 182,000 for speeding. It had decided to impose a fine that fitted both the crime and the personal wealth of the repeat offender. What do you think of such an approach?
It is easy to see why fines which are pegged to affordability are appealing. The point is simply that a fine of, say, $1,000 has a more severe impact on the poor than on the rich.

So to ignore affordability is in effect to discriminate unfavourably against the less well-off.

But it has not been, to my knowledge, seriously contemplated in Singapore.
- Why not? What are some of the drawbacks of having such a system?
I can think of some reasons which might stand against such a move.The first is that it will contribute another layer of complexity to the sentencing process.

Affordability has to be defined and policed. Income is an obvious indicator, but do we take into account other kinds of assets such as CPF, and do we make allowances for dependants?

If assets out of Singapore are also to be taken into account, problems of verification arise. This is not to say that it is impossible to find some sort of solution to these practical issues, but it becomes a question of whether it is ultimately worth the while.

A second issue is how far we should take the principle of equalising the impact of sentencing.Should we, for example, take into account the fact that a jail term of one week to someone of modest means is likely to have a far greater impact than another offender who is wealthy and whose family does not have to depend on his week's wage to survive?

If we do, it might mean that the wealthy are to be sentenced to longer jail terms for the same offence.

It is possible administratively to reform only the law regarding fines and to leave imprisonment intact, but if we are acting on principle, we need to see if the logic extends legitimately to all the other kinds of punishment.
- What pitfalls have countries that have tried progressive fines faced?
Another thing which seems to have bothered judges in the United Kingdom, which experimented with progressive fines for a short while and then abandoned it, was the potential of such a system to carry the logic 'too far'.

Thus, in an affray - fighting in public, which is an offence in the Penal Code - where a rich person is fighting with a poorer opponent, and where both are equally blameworthy, the poor offender might be fined $600, but his wealthier opponent $60,000 for essentially doing the same thing.

At the core is a very fundamental question of exactly what rich people are entitled to pay for with their money.

It appears to be uncontroversial that they can dine in finer restaurants, buy more expensive cars, stay in better accommodation, pay for better health care, and pay for better or more prestigious education for their children.

In the context of the legal system, they are also entitled to pay for (what they think to be) better lawyers to conduct their civil actions or criminal defence. They can also better afford to lose and pay the costs that this would entail.

Debate over Woffles Wu's 'lenient' fine
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 23 Jun 2012

What it's all about

LAST week, plastic surgeon Woffles Wu, 52, was fined $1,000 for getting an employee to take the rap for two speeding offences committed several years ago.

On Sept 11, 2005, a car belonging to him was caught speeding at 95kmh on Lornie Road, which has a speed limit of 70kmh. On Nov 10, 2006, the car was again booked for travelling at a speed of 91kmh on Adam Road.

In both cases, Mr Kuan Yit Wah, then a maintenance technician at Wu's clinic, told police that he was the driver. But the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau later received a complaint about the incident, and it was found later that Mr Kuan had lied.

The well-known plastic surgeon was charged with abetting Mr Kuan to provide misleading information to the police, and fined $1,000 after pleading guilty at a district court.

Mr Kuan, 82, was let off with a stern warning.

What's the buzz?

THE punishment quickly drew criticism for being too lenient, sparking speculation that Wu was spared a stiffer fine or a jail term because he was rich.

While some critics asked why the prosecution did not pursue stiffer charges, others asked why he was charged under the Road Traffic Act instead of the Penal Code, which provides for stiffer penalties.

Some have also compared Wu's case with those of others, where the offenders were handed jail terms or larger fines for giving false information to the police.

Even MP Hri Kumar Nair, a lawyer, expressed surprise at Wu's sentence. In a blog, he wrote that such offences - getting someone else to take the rap - were serious as 'they seek to undermine the course of justice'.

But others have countered that the offence that Wu was trying to evade was less serious than those in the cases cited by critics.

While Wu's was only a speeding offence, other cases involved drink driving and speeding that had resulted in accidents. In that light, they argue, the punishment for giving false information should be seen in proportion to the seriousness of the underlying offence.

Why it matters

THE Woffles Wu case comes at a time when Singapore's rising income gap remains a hot - and sensitive - issue.

Thus, the debate it raises is probably more than just over whether Wu's fine in itself was overly lenient; it is about the concept of fairness and whether the rich receive special treatment.

With the Government already under fire for what many see as a growing divide between Singapore's rich and poor, the case has likely added a little more fuel to the fire.

The Government was clearly aware of this, as seen in the quick responses from Law Minister K. Shanmugam and the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) - described by some as an unusual move from the AGC.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that 'no one is above the law', while the AGC explained why it had decided to charge Wu with abetment rather than providing false information.

Some observers have also pointed out that prosecutors retain the discretion on which law to base the charge on, while some warned against the temptation to suggest that wealthy offenders be handed bigger fines, arguing that the law should be applied fairly, regardless of wealth.

What's next?

THE case is not quite over: Court papers did not state who was actually driving Wu's car when it was speeding, and investigations are still ongoing. That could mean more punishments being meted out when the probe is completed.

The court is also due to release the written judgment on the case, which is certain to spark more debate.
"No one is above the law, and (in) prosecutions, AGC makes independent decisions, the court also makes independent decisions." -Law Minister K. Shanmugam, dismissing speculation that Wu was spared a jail sentence 'because he's rich'


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