New law defines ‘contempt of court’, so you don’t get a shock when you kena charged.

The issue of contempt of court is back in the news.

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According to reports, the Law Ministry introduced the new Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill today to ‘provide clarity’ on what constitutes contempt of court.

No, you are not alone in wondering why they didn’t just call it the Contempt Bill instead. Or what it means to provide clarity. (Maybe this is lawyer-speak.)

Anyway, we tried to make some sense out of the legalese, so you don’t have to.

Some background: we have a few types of laws in Singapore.

For example, statutory law, which is essentially our formal Acts, Statutes that are passed in Parliament. Things like Employment Act, Personal Data Protection Act, CPF Act.

Then we have case (or common) law, which is essentially rulings on past cases. When there is no statutory law, then judges will rely on past rulings when hearing cases.

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Now back to contempt.

Today, Singapore’s contempt laws fall under common law. It is the only criminal offence in Singapore that is not in our statutes. So what MinLaw wants to do is to get rid of this oddity, and formalise it by creating the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act. (i.e Contempt Bill)

How will this help Singaporeans?

According to Law Minister K Shanmugam, there are three main benefits.

  1. It defines what contempt is – this includes disobeying court orders, publishing material that unduly interferes with court proceedings (sub judice), and scandalising the judiciary.
  1. It tells you what can be used to defend yourself against a contempt charge.
  1. It tells you what the punishments are, and what powers the courts have to enforce its orders.

(We’ll probably know more when the details are out, but in the meantime, you can read more at MinLaw’s website.)

Of the three, #1 is key.

We’ve had several cases in the past where people post articles that were potentially sub judice. The problem in most cases was – where is the line? What is considered fair commentary? What is considered interfering with court proceedings?

We need clear definitions, and the Bill will probably help.

And then we have the infamous charge of scandalising the judiciary, which sounds a lot more dramatic and scandalous than it really is. Think blogger-activist Alex Au, British author Alan Shadrake, cartoonist Leslie Chew. You can bet that activists will push for even more clarity. Some have even pushed to stop using such an “antiquated charge”. As always, some of the arguments are reasonable and valid, but some … not so.

Regardless, at least Singapore is taking a first step by introducing the Bill. If you ask me, the clearer and the more transparent the law – the better.

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