Wednesday 13 July 2016

New law defines contempt of court, spells out penalties: Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill

Contempt: Codifying laws to make dos and don'ts clearer
Proposed Bill gives a better understanding of what people cannot do, and the penalties
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2016

Those who run afoul of contempt of court laws may face serious criminal sanctions, such as jail.

This is a key reason why these existing laws are being codified, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam, so people are clearer about what they cannot do, and the punishments they could face.

"If you look at criminal law, the general principle is that it should be set out in writing," he told reporters after the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was tabled in Parliament yesterday. "The law of contempt has been the exception and, for sometime now, we wanted to crystallise it."

The law of contempt - part of Singapore's case law and developed by judges, covers three main areas: prejudicing court matters, disobeying court orders, and scandalising the courts.

In an earlier interview, Mr Shanmugam highlighted three benefits that the Bill, if passed, will bring.

First, it gives people a better sense of what actions can unduly influence court proceedings, known as sub judice, and what amounts to unfounded allegations of bias in judgments, known as scandalising the courts.

This ensures that every one receives a fair trial, and public confidence in the Singapore's legal system - which stands at 92 per cent according to a survey commissioned by the Government last year - is not eroded by baseless attacks on the courts' integrity.

Second, it provides a framework for punishments, and sets a limit on the fines and prison sentences. Currently, there is no maximum, and the degree of punishments is left entirely to judges.

Third, the Bill spells out specific powers the courts will have to enforce orders, such as in divorce cases, where men have to pay maintenance to their former spouses.

Mr Shanmugam said contempt laws do not affect discussions on policies, and people are free to criticise judgments after a trial is over.

"After the verdict is delivered, there is nothing to prevent people from saying what they think... that the law should be changed, that the punishments are not adequate. But wait for the case to be over."

For instance, arrests in last year's Thaipusam procession led to a public debate over whether music should be allowed. That is fine, said Mr Shanmugam.

What is not right, he added, is the public expressing views on an accused's guilt or innocence, which may influence court proceedings.

"You want an independent party, the judge, to decide on guilt or innocence. You don't want, as it were, a trial by the public," he said.

Mr Shanmugam said the move to put contempt of court laws in writing has been in the works for some years now.

In a 2010 speech at the opening of the legal year, then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong raised the idea of putting contempt of court laws in statutory form.

When asked why it took six years before it was put forward, Mr Shanmugam yesterday said contempt laws were already part of Singapore's case law, and there were more pressing matters to deal with, such as changes to family law.

By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2016

Q What is contempt of court?

A There are three main offences:

Scandalising the courts: Attacks on the integrity of the courts, for instance, by alleging that judges are biased.

Sub judice: Prejudicing ongoing court proceedings by commenting on the guilt or innocence of the parties involved, or by commenting on facts that have yet to be established in court.

Disobedience: Disobeying court orders, such as when a man refuses to pay his former spouse alimony despite a maintenance order from the court.

Other forms of contempt include interfering with proceedings by threatening witnesses, or disruptive and rude behaviour in court. The latter is known as contempt in the face of court.

Q Does this mean judges and judgments can never be criticised?

A No. One can criticise and disagree with the reasoning or merits of a court judgment. If there are concerns about a judge's conduct, a report can be made through appropriate channels such as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Q Does contempt of court stop discussion on the legal system?

A No. Contempt of court laws seek to stop improper influence on court proceedings and outcomes. Comments on the legal system itself, such as whether certain laws should be changed or whether penalties are too lenient, do not run afoul of contempt laws.

Q Are there any examples of what amounts to contempt of court?

A The Bill outlines two examples. In the first, a man is charged with rape and a newspaper publishes an interview with his former girlfriend. She claims in the interview that the man had previously brutally raped her and also been jailed for sexually assaulting other women. The prosecution is not permitted to disclose his previous convictions during his pending rape trial. The publication of the interview poses a real risk of prejudicing the trial.

In the second example, a man is charged with inflicting serious bodily harm on another outside a pub. The victim has difficulty recognising his assailant. An online news site publishes a photo of the accused with fists clenched outside the pub, with the caption "vicious pub bully caught". As the identity of the assailant is an issue in the accused's pending trial, the photo and caption pose real risks of interfering with ongoing proceedings.

Q What are the penalties for contempt of court?

A Currently, there is no limit on the punishments and it is at the discretion of the judges.

Under the proposed Bill, offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and/or jailed for up to three years for cases involving the High Court or Court of Appeal. For cases involving other courts, the punishment is a fine of up to $20,000 and/or jail of up to 12 months.

The heaviest punishment for contempt by way of scandalising the judiciary in Singapore so far is six weeks' jail and a $20,000 fine. This was given to British author Alan Shadrake in 2010, for impugning the impartiality of the courts here in 11 passages of his book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the new Bill does not set the maximum penalty at this precedent as it would tie the courts' hands in more serious cases. " So you give a broad framework and then you leave it to the courts," he said.

Bill 'timely' amid greater interest in legal cases
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2016

Increasing public interest in legal cases, along with the growth of social media, means there is a greater risk of the public prejudicing court cases, said law experts yesterday.

Describing the new Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill as timely, they believe there is a need to help the public better understand what comments are permissible.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said that though the proposed legislation, which was tabled yesterday, has been in the works since 2010, recent cases such as the death of secondary school student Benjamin Lim and former China tour guide Yang Yin's trial have generated a huge amount of public interest.

"If anything, the urgency of the law is more so today than it was in 2010 with the ubiquitous use of social media," he said.

Just yesterday, the police warned the public against speculating on the arrest of a man, 20, in connection with last Saturday's death of a man, 26, he was acquainted with. The body was found on the sixth floor of a Yishun Housing Board block, where the accused lives.

Contempt of court laws already exist as common law, built upon judgments of precedent cases. But lawyers said writing them into law will allow those without legal training to better understand concepts such as sub judice.

"The person on the street may not be privy to updates in case law, or have the luxury of having a lawyer on hand to advise him or her," Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming said.

The proposed law makes clear several issues about sub judice.

The restrictions on discussions of a case kick in when an arrest is made or when the coroner is informed of a death.

Comments made overseas still run afoul of the law as long as they have an impact on ongoing court proceedings here.

Also, the Government can speak on matters even if they are before the courts if it deems them to be in the public's interest. For instance, a government official can set the record straight on certain facts relating to a case if falsehoods are being spread.

In March, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam spoke in Parliament about the death of Benjamin Lim, refuting reports on sociopolitical website The Online Citizen that he said contained falsehoods about details of the case, such as the number of police officers who interviewed the boy during a police investigation.

Lawyers say the Bill may end up encouraging freer expression as people are clearer about where the boundaries are.

National University of Singapore law professor Tan Cheng Han said that as the Bill "sets out clearly the narrow boundaries of what amounts to contempt of court, it could lead to more discussion rather than have a negative impact on speech".

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi added: "There's a lot of self-censorship now. It's the lack of clarity that causes this chilling effect (on speech)."

Those in matrimonial spats 'may take court orders more seriously'
By Selina Lum, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2016

Welcoming the proposed statute on contempt of court, family lawyers said it will have a positive impact for those caught in matrimonial disputes with a tardy ex.

After a divorce, it is common for parties to flout court orders when it comes to payment of maintenance, access to children and issues relating to matrimonial assets.

Lawyers interviewed said that having a consolidated piece of written law that sets out the consequences of disobeying court orders will make more people sit up and take court orders more seriously.

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing partner Michelle Woodworth described legislating contempt of court as a "progressive evolution". She said: "Codifying the law sends a clear signal that disobedience of court orders and interference with the administration of justice won't be tolerated."

Ms Malathi Das, director at Joyce A. Tan & Partners, said that while the proposed law provides a clearer framework on what steps can be taken and how, it "doesn't really add anything to already-existing remedies" for maintenance enforcement. In other words, the courts have always had the power to hand down jail terms and fines for disobedience of court orders.

But Harry Elias Partnership partner Ivan Cheong said that with the new Bill, there is greater clarity and it would instil greater confidence in clients that the orders may be effectively enforced. "Increased confidence in the judicial system and the ability to enforce these orders effectively also make clients feel they are not just getting a 'paper' order."

Mr Amolat Singh of Amolat & Partners said that having a "one-stop" piece of legislation that "distils the wisdom" of hundreds of thousands of court judgments and setting out the prescribed punishments will let people know upfront the consequences of non-compliance.

Ms Sharanjit Kaur, a partner at Withers KhattarWong, said some parties may take orders and judgments in family disputes lightly, and taking out proceedings to enforce those orders can be a time- consuming, stressful and sometimes expensive process.

She cited an example of a woman who was ordered to sell the matrimonial home in six months. The woman, who remarried and continued to live in the property with her second husband, made things difficult for her former husband, who was taking steps to sell the property. Three years after the order was made, the property has yet to be sold.

Lawyers said the courts are generally cautious when it comes to punishing parties for contempt in matrimonial disputes. Mr Singh noted that in some cases, access orders are breached as the children themselves do not want to see their parents. "The courts will still take everything into consideration before they send a person off to jail."

More clarity on contempt laws
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 13 Jul 2016

With the advent and widespread use of social media, court cases that generate great public interest also produce a large volume of comments. Some of those remarks stray inadvertently into the territory of contempt of court, whether by prejudging facts that are still in contention in court or by insinuating bias on the part of the judiciary.

A proposed law introduced in Parliament on Monday, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, seeks to provide greater clarity on what is permissible to say about an ongoing court proceeding.

Legal experts say it is high time that contempt of court - the only criminal offence based on common law built upon past judgments - is written into the statutes. Such a move will make contempt of court laws more accessible to the man on the street, who does not have the legal training and tools to access and analyse court judgments that now form the basis of the law. And people who have erred on the side of caution so far may feel freer to express comments about legal proceedings because the boundaries are better defined, they add.

Lawyers also say the Bill provides a framework for more effective enforcement of court orders - making it easier to take to task those who flout orders on maintenance payments and access to children.

Another aspect of the Bill seeks to set a limit on the punishments as it is currently entirely at the discretion of the judges. Under the Bill, offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and/or jailed for up to three years for cases involving the High Court or Court of Appeal. For other courts, the punishment is a fine of up to $20,000 and/or jail of up to 12 months.

Beyond that, the Government has emphasised that the Bill does not seek to substantively change the definition of contempt of court.

But any potential statute - whether it establishes new legal positions or simply clarifies the status quo - that sets limits on free speech will generate concern among an increasingly vocal public.

A robust discussion, including when the Bill is debated in Parliament, will go a long way towards assuring people that their rights remain unchanged.

No comments:

Post a Comment