The Straits Times says

Curbing contempt for due process

Its colonial roots and vague boundaries have made the law of contempt of court the subject of criticism and review in countries that have adopted its judge-made principles articulated in English casebooks. In India, for example, resentment arose over restraints on comment. While in Australia, a law reform commission made recommendations a decade ago relating to the no-limit sentences a judge can impose for contempt. Such issues have to be addressed here as well, which is what the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill aims to do. Introduced in Parliament recently, the Bill's effort to codify the law is welcome as a lack of clarity is unsettling for those who fear finding themselves on the wrong side of the law when commenting on pending cases, especially those rousing much public interest.

Few would argue against the need for forms of contempt such as imputing improper motives to a court, interfering with trial witnesses, obstructing court proceedings, or disobeying court orders. But on sub judice, or "prejudging" a pending issue, in chatter via social media or opinions expressed elsewhere, is a more debatable matter. Those seeking more leeway to comment on cases argue that influence is not an issue as juries are no longer used here and a judge is impervious to outside talk. Some legal commentators believe it would take compelling circumstances to establish that a trial has been prejudiced or public confidence has been undermined in the due administration of justice. Even if there's a suspicion that loose comments from various quarters influenced potential witnesses, it would not be easy to attribute blame or make out a case beyond reasonable doubt.

Yet, it should be cause for concern when comments flout one's sense of natural justice. An example would be raising the past convictions of the accused, even though these are not related to present charges. Once a thief, always a thief is a presumption that a judge would spurn in the absence of sufficient evidence. But the court of public opinion might have no qualms about tarring and feathering someone rashly. Runaway sentiments should not punish those who ought to be presumed innocent instead, for example, by causing others to shun or harass a suspect while a case is pending. Nor should innocent people be put on trial by self-appointed social media vigilantes with neither accountability to anyone nor sense of social restraint.

In seeking to codify existing practices, the proposed law has specific purposes, as stated in the Bill. It also helps by spelling out what penalties might follow for failure to comply with its provisions. Making clear that the law elucidates rather than expands the scope of what might constitute contempt would help to reassure those who fear that fair comment will be unduly fettered.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2016, with the headline 'Curbing contempt for due process'. Print Edition | Subscribe