Contempt: Codifying laws to make dos and don'ts clearer

LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM
LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM

Proposed Bill gives a better understanding of what people cannot do, and the penalties

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.

JUST NOT DURING TRIAL

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.

LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Contempt: Codifying laws to make dos and don'ts clearer'. Print Edition | Subscribe