Q What is contempt of court?
A There are three main offences:
• Scandalising the courts: Attacks on the integrity of the courts, for instance, by alleging that judges are biased.
• Sub judice: Prejudicing ongoing court proceedings by commenting on the guilt or innocence of the parties involved, or by commenting on facts that have yet to be established in court.
• Disobedience: Disobeying court orders, such as when a man refuses to pay his former spouse alimony despite a maintenance order from the court.
Other forms of contempt include interfering with proceedings by threatening witnesses, or disruptive and rude behaviour in court. The latter is known as contempt in the face of court.
Q Does this mean judges and judgments can never be criticised?
A No. One can criticise and disagree with the reasoning or merits of a court judgment. If there are concerns about a judge's conduct, a report can be made through appropriate channels such as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
Q Does contempt of court stop discussion on the legal system?
A No. Contempt of court laws seek to stop improper influence on court proceedings and outcomes. Comments on the legal system itself, such as whether certain laws should be changed or whether penalties are too lenient, do not run afoul of contempt laws.
Q Are there any examples of what amounts to contempt of court?
A The Bill outlines two examples. In the first, a man is charged with rape and a newspaper publishes an interview with his former girlfriend. She claims in the interview that the man had previously brutally raped her and also been jailed for sexually assaulting other women. The prosecution is not permitted to disclose his previous convictions during his pending rape trial. The publication of the interview poses a real risk of prejudicing the trial.
In the second example, a man is charged with inflicting serious bodily harm on another outside a pub. The victim has difficulty recognising his assailant. An online news site publishes a photo of the accused with fists clenched outside the pub, with the caption "vicious pub bully caught". As the identity of the assailant is an issue in the accused's pending trial, the photo and caption pose real risks of interfering with ongoing proceedings.
Q What are the penalties for contempt of court?
A Currently, there is no limit on the punishments and it is at the discretion of the judges.
Under the proposed 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 cases involving other courts, the punishment is a fine of up to $20,000 and/or jail of up to 12 months.
The heaviest punishment for contempt by way of scandalising the judiciary in Singapore so far is six weeks' jail and a $20,000 fine. This was given to British author Alan Shadrake in 2010, for impugning the impartiality of the courts here in 11 passages of his book, Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the new Bill does not set the maximum penalty at this precedent as it would tie the courts' hands in more serious cases. " So you give a broad framework and then you leave it to the courts," he said.
Chong Zi Liang