SINGAPORE - Should maid abusers who cane their employees or even burn them get higher sentences?
This is the issue a High Court panel of three judges, which includes the Chief Justice, said it will consider as it looks into the appeal of a couple convicted of caning and slapping their maid, and subjecting her to other humiliating "punishments".
It comes a year after Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon signalled the need to review sentencing benchmarks "upwards" for maid abuse when an appropriate case came before the court. He said the lower courts "might not have sufficiently taken into account the acute need for deterrence" and also not have appreciated the need to calibrate sentences across the full range of punishment laid down by Parliament.
On Thursday (Nov 23), such an appropriate case presented itself.
Former regional IT manager Tay Wee Kiat and his wife Chia Yun Ling, who were sentenced to jail terms of 28 months and two months respectively for abusing their Indonesian maid, are appealing against the guilty verdict and their punishment. The prosecution has asked the court to increase the sentences for Tay, 39, and Chia, 41.
Among other things, Tay was found guilty of forcing Ms Fitriyah to stand on one leg on a stool while holding another stool in her hand. She was made to maintain the position for half an hour, with a small plastic bottle shoved into her mouth. He had also hit the maid with three canes bundled together and had made Ms Fitriyah and another maid slap each other 10 times. Chia was found guilty of slapping and punching Ms Fitriyah.
They were charged for causing simple hurt to the maid, which carries a maximum of three years' jail. The couple are also on trial for abusing another maid, 28-year-old Myanmar national Moe Moe Than.
At the appeal hearing on Thursday, the prosecution, represented by Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck, said it was timely to review current sentences to deter the abuse of maids.
He pointed out that even after penalties were increased by Parliament in 1998, when it was decided that maid abusers face 1.5 times the jail term for a slew of offences including causing hurt and causing grievous hurt, there were 24 cases of maid abuse involving simple assault last year. This is the highest since the numbers dipped to 15 in 2013.
Mr Kwek proposed three sentencing categories depending on the degree of harm and the level of culpability. Jail terms will start from three months for "one-off" cases with minor or no injury, such as a single slap. It should be at least nine months in jail for offenders who use objects such as a cane to cause visible injuries - the second category.
Abuse involving high harm and culpability, including burning the victim, will fall under the most serious category with jail terms of at least 18 months.
Under this proposed framework, Tay should get 38 months in jail and Chia three months, the prosecution argued.
Another proposed framework was submitted by Ms Monica Chong Wan Yee, a lawyer from WongPartnership, who was appointed by the court to give an independent view.
She suggested having three different degrees of harm and two levels of culpability, resulting in six categories of offenders. The starting point jail terms range from four weeks to 20 months.
The couple's lawyer Wee Pan Lee argued that his clients should be cleared of the charges, pointing out inconsistencies in the maid's testimony. He also took issue with the prosecution for "shifting the goalposts" in several charges against Tay.
For instance, one offence was originally said to have taken place between noon and 1pm on Oct 18, 2012. After Tay produced records to show he was at work, the timeframe was widened to between June and December 2012.
The court, which also includes Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang and Justice See Kee Oon, will give its decision at a later date.