Loan-shark runners will be slapped with as many as three extra months in jail if they are caught harassing debtors' neighbours.
High Court Justice Tay Yong Kwang seemed to set this sentencing guideline in judgment grounds released yesterday, when he nearly doubled runner Quek Li Hao's punishment from 14 to 24 months after an appeal by the prosecution.
The judge made it clear that loan sharks cannot be allowed to treat innocent neighbours as "mere collateral damage".
"In my view, offenders who knowingly harass innocent persons... ought to be given an imprisonment term of two to three months higher than the benchmark sentence of 12 months' imprisonment."
Lawyers whom The Straits Times spoke to said this could set a precedent for lower district courts.
"When such cases are heard, district courts will take an ever more serious view of aggravating factors like the harassment of neighbours," said criminal lawyer Kertar Singh.
In March, Quek, who pleaded guilty to four counts of harassment, was sentenced by a district judge to 14 months' jail and 12 strokes of the cane. Seven additional counts were taken into consideration.
But prosecutors argued that the sentences were "manifestly inadequate".
The 38-year-old former sales manager and university dropout had splashed paint and sprayed loan-shark graffiti in six different areas all around the island, including Ang Mo Kio, Hougang and Pasir Ris.
The judge agreed the punishment was not enough. But what caught his attention was that in one of the four charges, Quek splashed paint on a flat neighbouring the debtor's unit, "causing needless annoyance and duress".
Grassroots leaders The Straits Times spoke to hope that Justice Tay's pronouncement will deter loan sharks from going after a debtor's neighbours.
Vice-chairman for Tampines Polyview Residents' Committee (RC) Philip Loh pointed to the long corridors in Housing Board blocks which make next-door neighbours easy prey. "It is unfair when they are affected," he said.
Mr Muhammad Faruk, an RC chairman who takes charge of about a dozen blocks in Hougang Central, hopes loan sharks will now get the message that their harassment is a serious crime.
Ms Nadira Aljunied, 31, was herself an incidental victim. The MacPherson resident found her door splashed with paint last year. She said the judge's heavier sentence was a "good idea".
"It's not our fault and it's unfair," said Ms Nadira, who is unemployed. "Some loan sharks harass debtors' neighbours just to get more attention."
Police have said that increased enforcement against loan sharks in recent years has helped reduce the number of harassment cases.
They received fewer than 9,000 reports of loan-shark harassment last year, down from 11,776 in 2011 and 15,525 the year before.
Additional reporting by Priscilla Goy