Lawyers want apex court to clarify term 'bookmaker'

Issue arose due to case of man in casino who accepted baccarat players' 'insurance' wagers

Lawyers for a man jailed 10 months for accepting "insurance" wagers from punters playing baccarat in casinos are pushing for the test case to be referred to the Court of Appeal.

They want the law clarified in the public interest on whether the term "bookmaker" under the Betting Act applies to persons who provide "baccarat" insurance to casino patrons.

The lawyers had argued in a High Court appeal last month that bets taken by a bookmaker under the Act are limited to horse races or sporting events and do not cover games like baccarat in casinos.

But the High Court judge dismissed the appeal, ruling that the Act could cover a wide range of instances, including outcomes of government elections.

With the High Court dismissal of the criminal case, which was first heard in the State Courts, there would be no room for further appeal except to get permission to file a criminal reference, which is reserved for cases hinging on questions of law of public interest.

The case involves businessman Peh Hai Yam, 53, who had been convicted last year on nine counts of conspiring with various accomplices to provide baccarat "insurance" to casino patrons at Resorts World Sentosa.

In baccarat with insurance, users in certain situations, at some point after the cards have been dealt, may bet on "player insurance" or "banker insurance".

The insurance is meant to guard against the user losing all of the betting money placed in the game proper. The payout from the insurance bet cannot exceed the original bet placed on "player" or "banker".

Peh's wife, Madam Tan Saw Eng, had admitted last year that she made about $50,000 through insurance bets with baccarat players.

Peh and an accomplice hatched the move in 2010 to jointly receive baccarat insurance bets from casino patrons, offering the same odds as Resorts World Sentosa casino. Their enterprise grew, but in November 2011, Peh and other accomplices including his wife were snagged by police.

He was sentenced by District Judge Mathew Joseph in December 2015 to five months' jail on each of the nine charges, with two of the jail terms to run consecutively. He was also fined $200,000.

Peh's lawyers, led by Mr Ong Ying Ping, in arguing his appeal against conviction in the High Court, said Parliament's intention behind the Act was solely to regulate betting on horses and sporting events.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Hon Yi countered there was no evidence that Parliament had intended such a restrictive approach and the relevant term in the Act applied to bets or wagers in any event.

Justice See Kee Oon, in judgment grounds released last month, held among other things that the terms "horse race" and "sporting event" were absent when Parliament defined "bookmaker" in Section 2(1) of the Act, showing there was no intent to limit it to horse races and sporting events.

The judge also cited "other potential and readily-identifiable situations" in which a person may have acted as a bookmaker and breached Section 5(3)(a) of the Act by receiving bets or wagers not related to horse races or sporting events.

"For example, bookmakers may conceivably receive or negotiate bets placed on the outcomes of government elections, beauty pageants, talent contests (for example, music or dance competitions), or entertainment award ceremonies such as the Academy, Emmy or Grammy awards," said Justice See. These are obviously not horse races or sporting events and "bets or wagers received or negotiated in relation to these outcomes by bookmakers would fall foul of the Betting Act", said the judge.

The case is set to be heard by the top court in September.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline Lawyers want apex court to clarify term 'bookmaker'. Subscribe