More clarity on contempt laws

With the advent and widespread use of social media, court cases that generate great public interest also produce a large volume of comments. Some of those remarks stray inadvertently into the territory of contempt of court, whether by prejudging facts that are still in contention in court or by insinuating bias on the part of the judiciary.

A proposed law introduced in Parliament on Monday, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, seeks to provide greater clarity on what is permissible to say about an ongoing court proceeding.

Legal experts say it is high time that contempt of court - the only criminal offence based on common law built upon past judgments - is written into the statutes. Such a move will make contempt of court laws more accessible to the man on the street, who does not have the legal training and tools to access and analyse court judgments that now form the basis of the law. And people who have erred on the side of caution so far may feel freer to express comments about legal proceedings because the boundaries are better defined, they add.

Lawyers also say the Bill provides a framework for more effective enforcement of court orders - making it easier to take to task those who flout orders on maintenance payments and access to children.

Another aspect of the Bill seeks to set a limit on the punishments as it is currently entirely at the discretion of the judges. Under the Bill, offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and/or jailed for up to three years for cases involving the High Court or Court of Appeal. For other courts, the punishment is a fine of up to $20,000 and/or jail of up to 12 months.

Beyond that, the Government has emphasised that the Bill does not seek to substantively change the definition of contempt of court.

But any potential statute - whether it establishes new legal positions or simply clarifies the status quo - that sets limits on free speech will generate concern among an increasingly vocal public.

A robust discussion, including when the Bill is debated in Parliament, will go a long way towards assuring people that their rights remain unchanged.

Chong Zi Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'More clarity on contempt laws'. Print Edition | Subscribe