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New bill on Contempt of Court proposes unusually harsh punishment

By Remy Choo

The striking thing about the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill is the potential punishment for Contempt of Court appear to be very harsh: a fine of up to S$100,000 or imprisonment of up to 3 years or both in the case of contempt jurisdiction exercised by the High Court.

In what was described as the "worst case of contempt" in Singapore, Alan Shadrake's case, Alan was given 6 weeks and a $20,000 fine. In Alex Au's case, which involved scandalizing contempt of the Chief Justice, a fine of S$8,000 was meted out. Other fines meted out have generally ranged from S$500 - $10,000.

I dusted off a sentencing table I used sometime back as a reference.

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The current test for the offence of scandalizing the Court is the "real risk test" as set out in the Court of Appeal judgment of Alan Shadrake v PP. It requires the AG to show that the statements complained of pose a "real risk" that public confidence in the administration of justice will be undermined.

Under the proposed s3(1)(a)(ii) of the Act, all that the AG needs to show for the offence to be made out is that the statements complained of pose a "risk" that public confidence in the administration of justice will be undermined. Basically, this makes it easier for the AG to obtain a conviction for scandalizing contempt.

More fundamentally, why retain and even codify this legal antique? Surely the administration of Justice in Singapore is made of sterner stuff than to be susceptible of being undermined by spurious public comments. Scandalizing contempt has been abolished in England and Wales in 2013. As early as 1899, the offence of scandalizing contempt was described in a Privvy Council decision as "obsolete" as the English courts were "satisfied to leave to public opinion attacks or comments derogatory or scandalous to them".

The exception?

"To protect the dignity of the Court in “small colonies, consisting principally of coloured populations”". From McLeod v St Aubyn, [1899] AC 549, PC.

This write up was first published on Remy Choo's Facebook page. Choo is a practising lawyer at Peter Low LLC and also a co-founder of The Online Citizen.


The full bill can be viewed here.

Editor's note - The bill will be read a second time during the next available sitting which will be likely to be next month and is also very likely to be passed on the same day of the second hearing even if a division is called, as the People's Action Party holds super majority of the seats.