SINGAPORE - Contempt of court laws are set to be entered into the statutes, a move the Government says will clarify the types of comments permissible about the judiciary and enable more effective enforcement of court orders.
Criminal offences are codified under written law passed by Parliament, but contempt of court is the one exception. Its laws currently exist under common law, built upon the judgments of previous cases.
This will change if the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill - introduced in Parliament on Monday (July 11), is passed. The Bill does not expand the definition of contempt of court, Law Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters. Instead it is "a crystallisation of the law" and he listed three benefits this will bring.
One, it gives the public a better sense of what actions can unduly influence court proceedings, known as sub judice, and what amounts to unfounded allegations of bias in judgments, known as scandalising the courts.
This ensures that anyone facing a court hearing can receive a fair trial and public confidence in Singapore's legal system - which stands at 92 per cent according to a survey commissioned by the Government in December 2015, is not eroded by baseless attacks on the courts' integrity.
Two, it provides a framework for contempt of court punishments and sets a limit on fines and prison sentences. Currently, there is no maximum and the level of punishment is left entirely to the judges.
The Bill spells out the following penalties:
- For cases before the High Court or Court of Appeal, offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and/or jailed up to three years.
- For cases involving other courts, offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed up to 12 months.
The third benefit is that the new laws will spell out the specific powers that the courts will have to enforce its orders, such as in divorce cases where men have to pay maintenance to their former spouses.
Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking in a media interview ahead of the Bill's introduction, said the Government's decision to put contempt of court laws in writing was not prompted by recent developments. Rather, the proposed legislation had been in the works for some years now.
In a 2010 speech at the opening of the legal year, then-Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong mooted the idea of putting contempt of court laws in statutory form. He added that he had requested Mr Shanmugam to consider enacting such a law, and the minister had agreed to do so. Singapore is not alone in seeking to legislate contempt of court laws as jurisdictions such as Britain and India have such laws on the books.
Recently, there been a series reminders from the Attorney-General's Chambers and other government officials, asking the public not to make comments that can prejudice ongoing court hearings or inquiries. Such remarks have become increasingly visible with the widespread use of social media.