Contempt of court has long been an offence that is punishable by law in Singapore. Judges have always had the discretion to impose punishment on the perpetrators as they see fit. That the court system should be respected is something that is not in contention. The law applies to everybody and provides a framework for protection and justice. It is therefore important to society that the court and legal systems preserve a strong reputation based on public trust, equality, fairness and impartiality.
The preservation of a pristine reputation is based first and foremost on the quality of the legal system in itself. Procedures have to be organised, fair and egalitarian. The law has to be seen to be applied evenly regardless of social standing, political power, wealth, race, sex or public opinion. The law and its application have to be independent, stable and consistent.
To ensure that such a high standard is achieved and maintained requires the efforts of those within the judiciary as well as the general public. The judicial system has to have the trust of the public and the public has to respect its rulings and judgment. Does respect equate the inability to ask reasoned and logical questions? Are the issues of judicial credibility and the ability to offer constructive opinions mutually exclusive in Singapore?
These questions come to the fore with the Contempt of Court Bill in Singapore.
Contempt of court is a serious offence and should no doubt be taken seriously. It is beyond the pale that codifying the offence and setting out mandated scales of punishment will remind the public of the gravity of the offence. This is especially the case in matrimonial matters where people tend to flout court orders. Such codification from this perspective is therefore welcomed.
What constitutes contempt on the other hand is a very different kettle of fish altogether. While I fully support viewing contempt of court with seriousness, I wonder if this new bill effectively fleshes out what would be tantamount to contempt of court or does it just spell out the specific punishments that are to be meted out for offending parties?
“Under the Bill, there are three main types of conduct which constitute contempt of court. These are disobeying court orders, such as refusing to pay a sum of money ordered by the court, publishing material that interferes with on-going proceedings and making allegations of bias against the judges.”
But does this unmuddy the waters when it comes to what would run foul of contempt? Don’t we already know this? This does not help clarify what would constitute “crossing the line” when it comes to the publication of material that would interfere with on-going proceedings and allegations of bias.
All it does is to highlight the punishment for crossing the invisible line which will in turn lead to self censorship.
Take the Alan Shadrake case as an example. He was convicted of contempt for ostensibly the third limb of what generally constitutes contempt as referred to in the preceding paragraph although it is important to note that at the time of his sentencing, the Bill had not yet come into existence. Clearly, punishment for contempt existed way before the Bill and begs the question of what further purposes this Bill could serve.
Fair and accurate reporting of court proceedings are not supposed to be viewed as contempt of court but what is construed as “fair and accurate”? Alan Shadrake in his book “Once a Jolly Hangman” did feature numerous case studies and interviews. It was not simply wholesale unsubstantiated accusations by one man. Yet, Shadrake was jailed.
Indeed some have argued that contempt was used by the courts in Singapore to suppress what they do not like as opposed to punishing a genuine offence of contempt. Does this not trivialise contempt?
Will the court’s reputation be enhanced by alleged repression?
A concern with publication of materials was raised on the basis that it could interfere with on-going court processes. Is this really a relevant concern in Singapore where no jury trials exist? Are highly trained judges really susceptible to the court of public opinion?
The fear that this raises is that the crime of contempt will be misused to ensure that those who may criticise the courts and its rulings or ask pertinent and inconvenient questions will be unceremoniously and easily shut up.
While this may not be the desired intention, this bill will be a cooling effect on independent bloggers and websites who may seek to ensure accountability on the part of the judiciary by shining the spotlight on certain uncomfortable matters for fear of contempt.
While I agree wholeheartedly that the court system should be respected, I wonder if a system that does not tolerate constructive debate would achieve that purpose?
Wouldn’t an inability to openly ask questions lead to more undercover murmurs and rumour mongering? Could this not be perceived as an attempt to cover up what is inconvenient under the guise of contempt?
Instead of strengthening the magnitude of this crime, will it be open to abuse as a bullying tactic that negates the seriousness of the offence?