Contempt of court Bill passed after seven-hour debate

Law Minister K. Shanmugam.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam. ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Parliament passed a Bill on contempt of court laws yesterday, but not before a seven-hour debate that stretched past 9pm, beyond the usual time the House wraps up its business.

A total of 19 MPs spoke on the Bill after the hour-long opening speech by Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who later addressed their concerns point by point.

He reiterated that the aim of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was not to change the laws on contempt of court substantively. Instead, it sought to set out the existing common law, based on judgments in previous cases, in statutes.

But the new Act differs in one area - it takes a stricter view of what scandalises the courts, he said. Previously, a "real risk" of scandalising the judiciary had to be established for contempt. Now it just has to be a "risk".

This approach would maintain the sanctity and reputation of the judiciary, he said, and added: "If one calls a judge a 'biased swine', then let us not have arguments as to whether he only risked undermining the sanctity of the judiciary, as opposed to whether he really risked undermining the sanctity of the judiciary."

The new Act also set out the maximum penalties for contempt of court: For cases involving the Supreme Court, the fine is up to $100,000 and/or jail of up to three years. For cases in the lower courts, the fine is up to $20,000 and/or jail of up to 12 months. Under the existing law, there were no limits.

Workers' Party (WP) MPs argued it would have a chilling effect on public discussion. They also contended existing laws were adequate for the administration of justice, and the Bill gave the Government extra powers.

Mr Shanmugam assured the House that these fears were unfounded. He said: "The law today is the same as the law tomorrow."

He added that a survey by his ministry found most people supported the move to codify contempt laws.

At the end of the debate, three Nominated MPs - Mr Mahdev Mohan, Mr Kok Heng Leun and Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin - withdrew proposed changes to the Bill.

All MPs, except the nine from WP, voted for the legislation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Contempt of court Bill passed after seven-hour debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe