In some cases, extend protection to accused people

The former supreme court near the Padang area in City Hall.
The former supreme court near the Padang area in City Hall.PHOTO: ST FILE

The Ministry of Law said the courts operate on a principle of open justice (Gag orders imposed consistently - to protect alleged victims, Sept 11). It is worth considering why we practise open justice and whose interests it serves.

Open justice, in my opinion, has two main roles.

First, it allows the public to hold the judiciary accountable for its decisions in court; and second, through this very transparency, it allows the public to maintain confidence in our courts when impartiality and fairness are demonstrated.

Despite these significant benefits, open justice is not absolute. Certain situations, such as where minors or sex crimes are involved, warrant closed hearings.

In other words, there are scenarios where it is important to protect the privacy of the individual.

This right to privacy has never been more important than in this age of online connectivity, where news is rapidly distributed via both mainstream and social media.

Once identified, an accused person can suffer permanent harm to his reputation, livelihood and relationships, even if he is later found innocent.

His family and friends might also become subject to harassment and prejudice. This is because we cannot presume that the public knows the difference between suspicion and guilt; nor can we guarantee that people will keep their biases in check if they ever have to interact with the accused person.

Our legal system is not accountable only to the accuser but also to the accused. Fairness and justice must apply to both parties.

To take a leaf from the healthcare sector's book, perhaps we should apply the principle of "first, do no harm" and consider if closed hearings should be applied in more situations.

Lee Yuan Hwa

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2019, with the headline 'In some cases, extend protection to accused people'. Print Edition | Subscribe