Contempt of court Bill: NMP submits group's petition

NMP Kok Heng Leun submitted a petition in Parliament regarding the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, on Aug 10, 2016.
NMP Kok Heng Leun submitted a petition in Parliament regarding the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, on Aug 10, 2016.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Signed by 249 S'poreans, petition calls for greater consultation on Bill's content and effects

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun submitted a petition to Parliament yesterday on behalf of a group seeking to delay the passage of a Bill on contempt of court laws, which the group contends may restrict legitimate discussion on issues of public interest.

The petition called for the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill to be referred to a parliamentary select committee, and urged greater public consultation on its content and effects. It was signed by 249 Singaporeans over six days, ending on Tuesday.

When contacted, the Ministry of Law said the Bill's objective "is to write the existing case law on contempt of court into statute". It added that it had consulted key stakeholders in drafting the Bill.

Lawyers, academics and members of civil society gave input on the Bill.

The ministry also noted that the petition welcomes key objectives of the Bill, such as ensuring court orders are obeyed and providing greater protection to judicial independence.

The Bill was introduced and read for the first time in Parliament on July 11, and will be debated at the next sitting scheduled for next Monday.

It covers three main areas of the law of contempt: prejudicing court matters, disobeying court orders and scandalising the courts.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last month that the Bill does not expand the definition of contempt of court, and will provide greater clarity on the kind of actions that run afoul of the law.

Currently, there are no statutes on contempt of court, and existing laws are built upon judgments of cases that are heard in court.

But the petition argues that "the Bill goes beyond its stated goal of consolidating key elements of the law of contempt into statute".

It cites, for instance, that the Bill gives "new powers" to the Attorney-General to order the removal of articles that could potentially be in contempt, and also lowers the legal threshold required to prove that someone has scandalised the court.

It also "imposes severe punishment to a degree that may be disproportionate for a non-violent offence", said the petition organised by a group of activists, including Dr Thum Ping Tjin, Ms Kirsten Han, Ms Rachel Zeng and Ms Lisa Li.

When contacted, a spokesman for the office of the Clerk of Parliament said that when a petition is filed, it will be checked for compliance with the parliamentary standing orders. If it fulfils requirements, the Clerk will endorse it for presentation at a Parliament sitting.

Mr Kok, an artistic director at theatre company Drama Box, said he was approached last week to help submit the petition and agreed to do so as "the concerns raised largely reflect the ones I have as a parliamentarian and as a layman".

Separately, the Association of Women for Action and Research issued a statement yesterday raising similar points as those in the petition and expressing concerns about the Bill's "potential negative impact on civil society and free speech". It also stated its support for the general principle of the Bill.

The last time a petition was submitted to Parliament was in 2007, when then Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong filed one on behalf of a group that wanted to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which forbids sex between men.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Contempt of court Bill: NMP submits group's petition'. Print Edition | Subscribe