More protection for victims under criminal code revamp

The proposed changes cover the powers of investigators, court procedures and evidence, and sentencing and other powers of the court.
The proposed changes cover the powers of investigators, court procedures and evidence, and sentencing and other powers of the court. PHOTO: ST FILE

Earlier gag orders on identity of abuse victims and closed-door hearings among proposals

The courts will wrap an extra layer of protection around victims of sex crimes or child abuse to spare them any further trauma, if the sweeping changes to improve the criminal justice process are pushed through.

To prevent such vulnerable victims from being identified, a gag order will kick in the moment a case of sexual or child abuse is reported to the police, it has been proposed.

Vulnerable persons will also be able to testify in closed-door hearings, and physical screens can be used to shield them from the accused person.

These are among the 50 changes to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act proposed by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) which were announced yesterday.

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In a first for Singapore, investigators will also be given the power to take statements from suspects and witnesses in a video recording, instead of relying only on written statements.

Victims of sexual crimes may be able to video-record their testimony instead of having to recount it in person in court, while video recording will be made compulsory for suspects in such crimes.

This will give the court a sense of the suspect's demeanour and help it to gauge how voluntarily the statements were made.

The amendments are aimed at enhancing the fairness, accuracy and equity of the criminal justice system, said MinLaw.

Currently a gag order on the identities of vulnerable victims is issued only when the case goes before a court, but MinLaw wants it to kick in as soon as a police report is made.

Closed-door hearings will also be automatic, unless the victims wish to give their evidence in open court.

To prevent misuse of video- recorded statements, these may be viewed only at police stations or approved places.

Lawyers will also be barred from probing a victim's sexual history unless they obtain permission from the court. This would lessen the ordeal faced by such victims, said lawyers and academics.

National University of Singapore law professor Kumaralingam Amirthalingam said the reforms, if passed, would encourage vulnerable victims to come forward as they will feel better protected, adding that these are "positive steps", when taken together with other recent efforts.

In February, a one-stop centre to provide medical examinations for sexual crime victims was launched. An Appropriate Adult scheme, under which suspects under 16 will be accompanied by trained volunteers during police investigations, kicked in from April.

Association of Women for Action and Research's executive director Corinna Lim said a barrier to victims reporting sexual assaults and seeing the case through is the perception that their behaviour may be "put on trial".

Other proposed changes include expanding the community sentencing regime to include more offences and those who are not habitual offenders.

The eligibility for mandatory treatment orders, where offenders undergo treatment for mental health conditions in lieu of jail time, will include certain offences with sentences of up to seven years. At present, the limit is three years.

The public can give their feedback on the proposed changes until Aug 24.

•Additional reporting by Tan Tam Mei

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'More protection for victims under criminal code revamp'. Print Edition | Subscribe