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Bill on law on contempt tabled in Singapore parliament

A NEW Bill that seeks to put the current law on contempt in statutory form has been introduced in parliament in Singapore.

The existing law on contempt is contained in judgments in various cases, also known as case law. The new Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill will set out the law on contempt of court in statutory form, to provide greater clarity and certainty, the Ministry of Law said on Monday.

The move to codify the existing law on contempt also comes as it is the only criminal offence not written in the statute today.

Calls to include it in the statute were made in January 2010, when then chief justice Chan Sek Keong raised the issue in his opening of legal year speech.

He had said: "The law of contempt of court in Singapore is based on common law and is an anomaly in our criminal justice system, as all our criminal laws are statute-based. Laymen and many lawyers have to read the case law or the textbooks to find out what the law is. . . Putting the law in statutory form will allow potential offenders to know what they can be in for."

The new Bill will set out the definition of contempt of court, defences available, as well as a framework of punishments that can be meted out.

Currently, there are three main types of conduct that amount to contempt of court that are included under the new Bill. The first is disobeying court orders such as refusing to pay maintenance as ordered by the court; the second, sub judice or the publication of material that interferes with or prejudices on-going court proceedings including prejudging issues; and the third, scandalising the court by making allegations of bias or impropriety against Singapore judges, or impugning the integrity of the courts.

The Bill also seeks to clarify the available defences for the different types of contempt.

For example, in the case where publications in question originate overseas, an available defence would be that the person did not know or have no reason to believe the publication would be seen or heard by members of the public in Singapore.

The publication of material which interferes with or prejudices pending court proceedings is not contempt if the person did not know and had no reason to believe that those proceedings were pending.

Another available defence - disobeying a court order due to an honest and reasonable failure to understand the obligations under the court order.

There is now no limit on the punishment which may be imposed for contempt of court. The new Bill sets out the maximum penalties where the High Court or Court of Appeal can impose a fine of up to S$100,000 and/or jail term of up to three years, while other courts can mete out a maximum fine of S$20,000 and/or jail term of 12 months.

The Bill also sets out other enforcement measures such as protocol to deal with disruptions to court proceedings on the spot, apology to court, and non-publication direction by the Attorney-General.

Singapore courts will have jurisdiction to try and punish a contemnor for an act committed outside of the Republic in certain circumstances. One instance is when the contemptuous publication that originated overseas is accessed by any member of public here, whether it is online or through physical distribution. The other instance is where the act committed overseas interferes or obstructs the administration of justice in Singapore or poses a real risk of doing so. An example will be a person who is overseas intimidates a witness to prevent him/her from testifying in a trial in Singapore.

The ministry said stakeholders including the judiciary, the Law Society of Singapore, the media industry, legal practitioners, civil society and academia were consulted in the drafting of the Bill.