SINGAPORE - A volunteer at a religious organisation who engaged in a sex act with an underage girl he met there had his sentence of six years' jail and three strokes of the cane reduced to 3½ years' jail with no caning on Thursday.
The decision by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon to reduce the sentence after allowing an appeal by the 30-year-old came after Singapore's top judge overruled past cases where similar offenders received very low sentences.
In a written judgment, Chief Justice Menon said the initial sentence meted out to the man by a district judge in February was not manifestly excessive.
However, he noted that there was a line of incorrectly decided cases, involving the same offence of sexual assault by penetration of a consenting minor under the age of 14, where the offenders got much lower sentences than they should have.
The very low sentences in the past cases suggested that the judges had not applied the sentencing framework that was set out in the case of Pram Nair in 2017 when it came to cases involving consenting minors, he said.
The case of Nair, a former Sentosa beach patrol officer who raped and sexually assaulted a drunk partygoer on Siloso Beach, is the precedent for digital penetration, a form of assault involving the use of fingers.
There were 49 such cases after the Pram Nair decision, and the sentences imposed in 39 of these were jail terms of four years or less, while caning was imposed in only three cases, he said.
Chief Justice Menon said it was clear that the sentences fall far short of the framework, which starts at seven to 10 years' imprisonment and four strokes of the cane.
He prospectively overruled those past cases and made it clear that future cases should be dealt with by applying the sentencing framework set out in the Pram Nair case.
However, he said it was not fair to apply his ruling to the accused in the present case, given that the mistaken sentencing approach was an entrenched legal position.
"There would, in my judgment, be serious and demonstrable injustice if the sentence of six years' imprisonment and three strokes of the cane was maintained in this case," said Chief Justice Menon.
The accused in the present case was 28 years old in 2020 when he volunteered as a facilitator for certain children's classes at a religious organisation.
The 13-year-old victim and her family were members there, and she met the man in early 2020 when she picked her siblings up after their classes.
The man and the victim began a relationship, which they kept from others.
They would meet a few times a week and then go to the staircase landing of a block of flats where they talked, kissed and hugged.
The man began touching her inappropriately and progressed to penetrative acts.
He also asked her to send him obscene videos of herself, and she complied.
The victim's mother discovered the relationship after checking the girl's phone in June 2020 and made a police report.
He pleaded guilty to one charge of sexual assault by penetration of the victim with the victim's consent. Six other charges were taken into consideration.
He was given six years' jail and three strokes of the cane by a district judge who applied the framework set out in the Pram Nair case.
In his appeal, the man, who was represented by Mr Mark Yeo, argued that Pram Nair was a precedent that applied only in cases of non-consenting victims.
Chief Justice Menon ruled that the framework covered cases of consenting victims under the age of 14 and non-consenting victims over the age of 14, both of which carry the same maximum punishment of 20 years' jail with the possibility of a fine or caning.