Jail inappropriate for first-time remote gambling offence: Court

A man who bet $50,000 on an illegal gambling website had his prison sentence replaced with a fine, with the High Court ruling that this should be the starting point for first-time remote gambling offences unless Parliament decides differently.

Justice Aedit Abdullah replaced Lau Jian Bang's two-week jail term with the maximum $5,000 fine on each of his two charges.

The judge made it clear that a jail term should not be imposed even if the maximum fine is thought to be inadequate, if that resulted in a punishment that was disproportionate to the severity of the crime.

"The solution, it would seem, lies with Parliament to either increase the maximum fine to better deal with such situations, or to allow for fines to be coupled with other orders, including instruction and education on responsible gambling," said Justice Aedit in judgment grounds last month.

Lau had placed 13 bets totalling $39,000 in two days in October 2016 through an unauthorised website under the Remote Gambling Act (RGA). He gambled on the outcomes of football matches in the English Premier League as well as the top Italian and Spanish leagues.

Lau admitted to two charges of gambling under Section 8(1) of the RGA, and a further two charges were taken into consideration during sentencing. The bets totalled $50,000.

In January, Lau, who mounted his own defence in the State Courts, was convicted and sentenced to two weeks' jail on each of the two charges, with the sentences to run concurrently.

He appealed to the High Court in July, where his lawyers Sunil Sudheesan, Diana Ngiam and Sujesh Anandan contended that the sentence was excessive. They urged the court to impose a high fine or community service order instead.

They argued, among other things, that Lau was merely a punter, and by allowing operators such as Singapore Pools to offer remote gambling services, Parliament had indicated that the primary concern was not the act of remote gambling per se.

 
 

Deputy Public Prosecutors V. Jesudevan and T. Sukumaran argued, among other things, that Lau should not be treated as a first-time offender as he had engaged in unlawful remote gambling since 2015.

Justice Aedit found "little consistency" in the various unreported cases cited to the court for offences under the relevant section of the RGA for large-scale bets.

He said: "I am of the view that the harm caused by an offence under Section 8 of the RGA is not such as to attract imprisonment as a matter of course for first-time offenders."

Stressing that repeat offenders may need to be treated differently, he called for a $1,000 fine as the "single starting point" in developing sentencing guidelines.

This point should be adjusted to ensure the sentence imposed would be adequate for general deterrence.

He agreed the quantum should be pegged to the sums bet, but explained it did not follow that a jail term should be imposed where the bet quantum exceeds the maximum fine as argued by the prosecution.

He cited a 1998 criminal case where then Chief Justice Yong Pung How allowed an appeal after finding there was no reason to impose a custodial sentence when a fine would suffice simply because the maximum fine was thought to be inadequate.

If inadequate, it was for Parliament to raise the maximum fine, the CJ had said then.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2019, with the headline 'Jail inappropriate for first-time remote gambling offence: Court'. Print Edition | Subscribe