Contempt of court law passed after seven-hour debate

Mr Shanmugam said: "I confirm for the record (that) the courts are the final arbiters."
PHOTO: The New Paper
What is the new Bill about?

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill seeks to put current law on contempt in statutory form.

It sets out maximum penalties in a move to provide greater clarity and certainty.

What is different?

The threshold for being in contempt by scandalising the court has been lowered.

How long did discussions take?

Calls to include it in the statute were first made 6 years ago in January 2010.

Singapore lawmakers on Monday night passed the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, after seven hours of heated debate.

Law Minister K Shanmugam single-handedly took up two-and-a-half hours of that time, using two lengthy speeches to debunk criticism that the Bill was rushed into Parliament, curbs freedom of expression, and places the government above the judiciary.

The Bill - passed with 72 votes "for" and nine "against" - puts in writing contempt of court laws that have until now been left to the courts to define. It sets out the types of conduct which amount to contempt of court: disobeying court orders, interfering with court proceedings, sub judice contempt (where ongoing court proceedings are prejudiced as a result of comments), and scandalising the court.

Explaining the government's decision to include contempt law in the statutes - despite the Law Ministry's assertion that "the boundaries of contempt ... will not change" - Mr Shanmugam said that it is "not satisfactory" to have this as the only criminal law in Singapore that is based on case law.

Rejecting claims that the government had rushed the Bill into Parliament without sufficient public consultation, Mr Shanmugam said the genesis of the Bill was six years ago, when former chief justice Chan Sek Keong mooted the enactment of such a law. He added that the six-year timeframe was long by Singapore's standards.

Mr Shanmugam reiterated that stakeholders such as the Judiciary, the Law Society of Singapore, academics, and media practitioners had been consulted prior to the tabling of the Bill. He also said that according to a "scientifically-valid statistical survey" by the government, a "very substantial majority" of respondents supported the Bill. Without the survey on hand, however, he was unable to quote the exact figures.

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Still, he noted that only 249 members of the public had signed an online petition seeking to delay the passage of the Bill, on the grounds that it may restrict the legitimate discussion of issues that are of public interest.

Several online commentators and Members of Parliament (MPs) had also expressed concern that the government was attempting to limit citizens' freedom of speech - fearing that they would run afoul of the law by simply commenting on a matter before the courts. Representing several opposition MPs' views, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Dennis Tan characterised the Bill as an "unjust and draconian piece of law".

But Mr Shanmugam shot down such perceptions as "untrue", stating that "the law tomorrow is the same as the law yesterday" when it comes to one's right to criticise judgments and policies, and disagree with rulings.

Mr Shanmugam said the new law does not affect what people have already being doing - unless they decide they want to start publicly attacking witnesses, attacking judges, and trying to get certain results from the court.

He stressed that public discussions are not prohibited per se, and that the question is whether such discussions prejudice court proceedings or pose a real risk of doing so.

Indeed, the crux of Mr Shanmugam's message was that the government has consciously chosen to stick to the law as developed by the Singapore courts, except for one change - where the threshold for being in contempt by scandalising the court has been lowered. Previously, for a statement to be in contempt, it had to have a "real risk" of scandalising the judiciary. Now, the word "real" has been dropped.

He also dismissed the notion that opinions aired over coffeeshop talk or Facebook updates could be considered contempt.

"If the law yesterday is the same as the law tomorrow, have you seen anyone being charged for sitting in a coffeeshop and talking about cases? You know, I think we want a debate that engages honestly on the facts," said Mr Shanmugam, chiding those who had suggested that one could now be in contempt just by making a comment to a friend over a meal.

"I'll tell you when someone sitting in a coffeeshop discussing a case could be in contempt. If you catch hold of a witness, have a beer with him, and try and influence him or threaten him in the coffeeshop, that will be contempt. But if you sit with your friends and talk to them about a case, how do you think it impacts on any case?," asked Mr Shanmugam, urging MPs to "get real".

He also firmly rejected speculation that the Bill places the executive branch above the judiciary. Critics had taken issue with a clause containing an exception to sub judice contempt, which states: "A statement made by a person on behalf of the government about the subject matter of or issue in a pending court proceeding is not contempt if the government believes that such statement is necessary in the public interest."

Mr Shanmugam tried to allay those fears by stating: "I confirm for the record (that) the courts are the final arbiters ... as to whether the power of the executive was exercised in accordance with the clause." He said that this has to be the case "if the rule of law has got any meaning".

As for suggestions to amend the bill so that contempt is actionable only if it "seriously prejudices" the court proceedings - as opposed to simply having prejudiced them - Mr Shanmugam said: "This is not right."

"Think about it: A person is a defendant in a criminal trial. He could face years in prison. Do we really want to say it is okay to prejudice his right to a fair trial? What happens to the presumption of innocence and the basic right to a fair trial?"

This article was first published on Aug 16, 2016.
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