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Why It Matters

Debate clears air on contempt law

A Bill on the law of contempt of court, which was passed by Parliament on Monday, covers three main areas of contempt: prejudicing court matters, scandalising the courts and disobeying court orders.

The first two have drawn the ire of critics, who say the law curbs free speech and stifles legitimate discussion on issues of public interest.

The resulting marathon parliamentary debate on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill - passed after seven hours - helped to clear the air on what one is permitted to say about the judiciary and ongoing court proceedings.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam also said repeatedly that the new legislation would, by and large, be the same as the existing common law based on judgments of previous cases.

He gave several examples. People, he said, can continue to discuss the merits of a law, criticise a court judgment and debate national policies. For instance, one can start a campaign on the death penalty even if a capital trial is going on, he said.

Friends discussing an ongoing court case in a coffee shop would also not run foul of the law, as their actions do not have a "real risk" of influencing the trial, he said.

But the Workers' Party (WP) MPs, in disagreeing, highlighted that the Bill lowers the bar on what constitutes scandalising the courts. Previously, a "real risk" of scandalising the judiciary had to be established for contempt. Now, it is just a "risk".

Responding, Mr Shanmugam noted, among other things, that the change would affect only a small minority who want to attack the integrity of the courts. Moreover, the sanctity of the judiciary must be weighed against the rights of a few people making baseless accusations, he added.

The long debate failed to win over the WP MPs, who voted against the Bill. Still, it was a valuable elaboration on what the law entails and curtails.

Judges and lawyers alike will scrutinise transcripts of the exchange in time to come. The layman too can turn to the official parliamentary record, known as the Hansard, to know what can and cannot be said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Debate clears air on contempt law'. Print Edition | Subscribe