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Why new Bill aims to take discretion away from judges on contempt of court?

By Ghui

The Singapore courts are certainly no stranger to the concept of contempt of court. Even before the new Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill which aims to clarify what constitutes contempt of court was tabled in Parliament, the courts have not appeared to have had any difficulty discerning between what would amount to contempt and what would not.

An example of pre Bill contempt cases would be when blogger Alex Au was fined $8,000 for allegedly implying in an article that Judge Belinda Ang was partial in her judgment concerning a legal challenge mounted against Section 377A of the Penal Code. Another recent instance is when British journalist Alan Shadrake was jailed for 6 weeks and fined for contempt of court over his controversial exposé of the death penalty in his book "Once a Jolly Hangman".

Clearly, the new Bill is not required for the courts to find someone in contempt of court. Why then is the Bill necessary?

Minister for Law K Shanmugam is of the opinion that the Bill if passed will strengthen the legal process and protect the common man. In fact, he has been quoted as saying:

"You want an independent party, the judge, to decide on guilt and innocence…..You don't want, as it were, a trial by the public. The public can have a view, but that view on guilt and innocence should not be expressed in a way that say influences the proceedings against you. So in a sense the common man is helped because the judicial system is strengthened."

However, will this Bill really help the common man? Given that there are no jury trials in Singapore, is the concern of a trial by media that pressing? Are our highly trained professional judges so easily swayed by the press or public opinion?

In light of the recent furore that was generated when Malaysian Kho Jabing was hanged and the accusations of contempt that were unfurled which resulted in lawyer Alfred Dodwell apologising for his "misleading statements", the timing of this new Bill, however well meaning, can be viewed as an attempt by the government to control the conduct of troublesome lawyers and errant online news publications.

What the Bill essentially does is to set out clearly what the punishments attributable to contempt are as opposed to the conduct that would run afoul of the law. By Mr Shanmugam's own admission "while the Bill clarifies and crystallises processes, the law remains broadly the same".

In other words, it is the punishment that will be codified! Instead of letting the judge have the discretion to decide on the penalty, the penalty will now be hardwired into the law if the Bill is passed!

If the aim is to ensure that our judicial system is accorded the respect it deserves, why then is the Bill aiming to take discretion away from our judges? If our system is so perfect, why don’t we appear to trust our judges?

However well intentioned this Bill may be, it runs the risk of coming across as an insidious means to control judges or activists who do not toe the line, lawyers who may mount legal challenges against the status quo and journalists who may ask inconvenient questions. The timing of when this Bill was introduced will lend credence to the suspicions of those who may question the very need for this Bill in the first instance.

Is this Bill a way to encourage self censorship from the common man and a gag on the administrators of the system? I suppose only time will tell.