The Ministry of Law will table a Bill in Parliament later this year to put the law of contempt of court into statutory form, a ministry spokesperson has said in response to Today’s queries.
On Monday, Law and Foreign minister K Shanmugam had revealed the government is working on a draft Bill – in response to a question tabled by Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan – but he did not indicate a timeline.
Contempt of court is an action or writing that brings a judge into contempt or lowers his authority or scandalises the court.
Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong had called for the law to be put into statutory form at the opening of the legal year in 2010.
Currently, no statute lists out what makes for contempt of court and the punishment. CJ Chan had noted: “The law of contempt in Singapore is an anomaly in our criminal justice system, as all our laws are statute-based.” According to CJ Chan, due to the anomaly, the punishment for contempt of court is unlimited and at the discretion of judges who have shown much restraint in the past.
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of contempt of court. For example, British author Alan Shadrake was jailed for six weeks and fined S$20,000 in 2010 on the grounds that 14 passages in his book about the death penalty here had scandalised the judiciary.
Law experts agreed that putting contempt of court into statutory form would provide clarity.
National University of Singapore (NUS) adjunct law professor Kevin Tan said: “Everyone knows exactly what elements will constitute the crime and thus avoid situations where persons can commit the crime unknowingly or in ignorance. The penalties will also be clearly spelled out, rather than left to the discretion of the court.”
NUS law professor Thio Li-ann said the move would also help set out the parameters of a defence to contempt, such as fair criticism.
Said Prof Thio: “A statute could clarify that critical speech is protected where it is made with a reasonable basis, in temperate fashion. It could provide that to argue that a judge is partial is not per se contemptuous if there is a basis for such allegation.”
The law experts felt the draft Bill should consider, among other things, the need to strike the right balance between the protection of confidence in the administration of justice and the freedom of expression.
For example, it could consider if there should be a difference between deliberate and unintentional statements, as well as the kind of sentences – symbolic, punitive or deterrent – to be meted out.
Said Prof Thio: “We do not want to ‘chill’ speech unduly such that no one dares to speak out when there is malfeasance – judges are not infallible as they themselves recognise, nor do we want to have instances where vicious campaigns against the courts or campaigns of misinformation cause a public harm.”
Singapore Management University law assistant professor Jack Lee felt legislators should take into account the changing Singapore society, which has “become better educated and more discerning”. “The average person may not lose confidence in the judiciary simply because someone makes a statement claiming that the judiciary does not act fairly or impartially,” he said.
Asst Prof Lee noted that some Canadian cases have held that a person can only be found guilty of scandalising the court if there is a clear and present danger that the statement threatens confidence in the administration of justice. -by Amir Hussain