While the Ministry of Law will retain its position on naming persons accused of sex crimes, the current approach will also be kept “under review”, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (10 May).
Responding to Nominated Member of Parliament Tan Yia Swam’s question on how media coverage of ongoing trials of sex crimes is regulated, Mr Shanmugam outlined two approaches that have been studied by the Law Ministry which are adopted in other jurisdictions.
The first approach, he said, leans in favour of protecting the identity of accused persons until they are convicted.
There are, however, certain rules to granting anonymity to such persons in specific types of cases, Mr Shanmugam noted.
For example, in the Republic of Ireland, accused persons charged with rape offences are granted anonymity until they are convicted unless a judge orders otherwise, while in Switzerland, accused persons may be granted anonymity if the court is satisfied that they could be exposed to serious danger to life and limb or other serious prejudice, said the Minister.
“In New Zealand and Australia, where, you know, there are jury trials, the court may prohibit the disclosure of an accused person’s identity if it is satisfied that such a disclosure could create a serious risk of prejudicing a fair trial,” he added.
The second approach, said Mr Shanmugam, is to lean in favour of “having open court proceedings and all matters are out immediately”.
“There’s no general power to the courts to grant accused persons any sort of anonymity to protect their reputations (under such an approach),” he said.
Citing the United Kingdom’s general position, where the practice is that legal proceedings ought to be held in public, Mr Shanmugam noted that there are some exceptions that do restrict media reporting of some criminal cases, which prohibit the disclosure of the identity of accused persons.
The primary purpose of such provisions, however, is to protect vulnerable witnesses and victims and to avoid a substantial risk of prejudicing the proceedings, said Mr Shanmugam “if such a risk exists”.
“The downside in this second approach is that, of course, the reputation of accused persons is often irreparably damaged by the publicity from media coverage of an ongoing criminal trial, even if they are acquitted at the end of the day,” he elaborated.
Dr Tan also asked the Minister about present safeguards for medical professionals whose reputations are affected by media coverage of ongoing trials of sex crimes.
Mr Shanmugam said that the position applies to all accused persons in a variety of cases.
“Our approach has always been to lean towards the UK example. But both approaches have their merits and downsides. And after (our) assessments, we decided to keep our approach, which means that in general, accused persons are publicly tried and the verdict is publicly announced,” he said.
“That also allows unidentified victims of serial offenders to come forward and seek help,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Notwithstanding his comments, Mr Shanmugam however noted that the Government’s position on the issue “is not set in concrete”.
“We can also see the merits of shifting to some version of the first approach. So we will keep reviewing this while we are maintaining the status quo,” he said.
Even in the current situation, in certain circumstances, anonymity is given to cases that involve matters of public interest.
Such cases include those that entail sensitive information relating to national security, or if the release of information on the accused may lead to the identification of alleged victims of child abuse, particularly cases involving crimes of a sexual nature against them, said Mr Shanmugam.
The media, he stressed, has the obligation to comply with any court orders prohibiting the naming of accused persons if such orders are given out.
“The reason for doing that is to protect those vulnerable victims and the children from being identified and give them a better life … So the courts have some power to prohibit publication of the identity of the accused and impose conditions on how the trial can be reported,” said Mr Shanmugam.