Bill 'timely' amid greater interest in legal cases

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)."

Chong Zi Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Bill 'timely' amid greater interest in legal cases'. Print Edition | Subscribe