A judge has called for a review of a legal provision after a motorist was convicted and fined in court for failing to pay road tax even though she had paid up before appearing in court.
Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon set aside the conviction by a district judge and ordered the $400 fine paid by Ms Heng Tieng Yen to be refunded.
It emerged that Ms Heng had paid the overdue tax and a composition sum of $200 for the charge to be dropped, about two hours before she appeared in court where she was charged and fined last year.
But she did not tell the district judge she had already settled the tax and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had apparently not updated its electronic records to reflect her earlier payment.
The prosecution applied to the High Court to set aside the conviction and fine in October.
"This was a matter that should not have had to go before the High Court," said Judicial Commissioner See in judgment grounds released on Tuesday.
"However, unless the relevant agencies make a concerted effort to eradicate such errors or omissions by ensuring that accurate and up-to- date case information is furnished, the risk of recurrence is very real," he added.
The judge also took issue with a "show cause" provision routinely used by LTA and other prosecuting agencies.
When a person has committed an offence under the relevant Act, he is put on notice to attend court at a stipulated date. If he fails to show up, a warrant of arrest may be issued and he is obliged to "show cause" why he should not be punished for his earlier absence from court.
"The nub of the problem is that the show cause provision provides an independent reason to require a defendant to attend court," he said.
This meant the provision may take precedence in the mind of the prosecuting agency, such that the offender's settlement of the fine might escape its notice.
The judge said if the "show cause" requirement becomes the sole reason for the offender to attend court, then prosecutorial and judicial time and resources are expended "pursuing something that brings little, if any, countervailing good".
He noted that defendants in road traffic cases often appear unrepresented and could not be expected to understand the complexities of criminal procedure and realise they are being "unlawfully penalised twice", as in Ms Heng's case.
He suggested that prosecuting agencies forgo "show cause" proceedings for failure to attend court and allow the defendant to compound the offence, or to get the charges dropped, by paying a composition sum. He suggested increasing this sum to reflect the offender's absence.
If the defendant accepts this, the agency could seek a court order to close the matter, he added.
When contacted, an LTA spokesman said: "The motorist made payment only two hours before the court session and did not inform the judge that the composition sum was already paid. We will study the judgment and consider the views of the judge."
This article was first published on December 27, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.