What is Contempt of Court?
Generally, ‘contempt of Court’ refers to the disrespect of the authority, dignity and justice of the Courts and its rules or the wilful disobedience of the Court’s instructions.
Because contempt is considered a severe obstruction to the Courts’ ability to provide justice, contempt of Court has been made into a criminal offence in many jurisdictions. In Singapore, the law on contempt of Court was, for many years, found in a variety of Court judgements, following rules with origins in English common law.
However, in August 2016, the Singapore Parliament passed the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, which was intended to collect all of these various common law rules into a single Act.
The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is now the primary authority for the law on contempt of Court in Singapore, as the Act has repealed any earlier common-law rules which were inconsistent with it.
What kinds of behavior are considered contempt of Court?
Contempt of Court covers many different forms of behaviour, ranging from directly insulting a judge to failing to attend a Court-ordered conference, to publishing an article which suggests that Courts are not entirely impartial.
The Act lists some offences for contempt of Court.
Disobeying a Court order
This offence is committed when a person intentionally defies or breaches a Court order, judgement or undertaking.
This could occur if the person intentionally refuses to do an act which he or she is legally bound to do, such as producing or signing a document required by the Court, swearing an oath, to tell the truth, or refusing to answer a question which the Court needs him or her to respond. Failure to attend a Court-ordered meeting or continuing with a course of action that the Courts have prohibited by issuing an injunction also constitute contempt of Court.
Prejudicing or interfering with an ongoing Court case
This offence covers a wide variety of situations. It includes intentionally publishing material which risks interfering with an issue in Court or causing it to be pre-judged before the Court proceedings are completed.
This offence is intended to ensure that the accused person receives a fair trial from an impartial judge, rather than a ‘trial by media.’ It is important to remember that in the internet age, such offences are no longer limited to media companies, such as newspaper publishers, as anyone can publish material online where it is accessible to members of the public in Singapore (i.e. Blogs or even on Facebook).
Apart from publishing material, other ways of interfering with Court proceedings which constitute offences under the Act include preventing persons, such as the judge or witnesses, from appearing in Court, as well as insulting a judge or causing interruptions during a Court case.
Scandalising the Court
This offence involves either intentionally publishing material or intentionally doing an act which imputes improper motives to the Court or impugns its integrity, propriety or impartiality. The publication or act must also pose a risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the Court’s ability to administer justice.
Importantly, a person can be found guilty of this offence even if he or she did not intend to scandalise the Court by publishing the material or doing the act. All that matters is that the acts or publications was done intentionally.
However, fair criticism of a Court would not constitute an offence. Ultimately, the Court must decide what constitutes fair criticism. However, during the reading of the Bill in Parliament, it was suggested that commentaries by lawyers and academics would not be considered scandalising the Court.
What happens if you are charged with contempt of Court?
The maximum punishment depends on which level of the Court the offence of contempt has been committed against.
If the power to punish is exercised by the High Court or Court of Appeal, the maximum penalty available under the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act is a fine of up to S$100,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 3 years.
However, when the power to punish is exercised by any other Court or the contempt took place in connection with proceedings in any other Court, then the maxim penalty is a fine of up to S$20,000 and/or up to 12 months’ imprisonment.
Also, the Court may demand a private or public apology, and may refuse to hear the accused person in Court until the contempt has been ‘purged’, or the accused complies with the original Court order.
What defences are there to a charge of contempt of Court?
The Act allows for a number of defences against a charge of contempt of Court.
For offences of contempt based on failure to comply with a Court order, the law is mainly concerned with punishing individuals who intentionally refuse to comply, rather than those whose non-compliance was accidental. That is why under the Act, a person is not guilty if the Court is satisfied that his or her failure was wholly or substantially attributable to an honest and reasonable mistake.
For offences based on publishing material that scandalises the Court or interferes with Court proceedings, a person is not guilty of contempt if the publication was made in good faith and was a fair and accurate report of Court or parliamentary proceedings.
The law is not intended to penalise individuals who have valid complaints against members of the judiciary, as it is not an offence to make a report in good faith to the relevant authorities, such as the Chief Justice or the police, or to apply in good faith for disqualification of a judge or appeal against a judgement.
The law is also not intended to penalise editors or individuals who were not authors of the disputed material, where such individuals innocently published or distributed the material. Specifically, such individuals are not guilty of contempt if the material was published or distributed without their authority, consent or knowledge, or if the individuals exercised due care and attention.
Similarly, it is not an offence to publish the material outside of Singapore if the publisher did not know or had no reason to believe that the publication would be seen or heard by members of the public in Singapore or if the person was unaware that proceedings were taking place in Singapore.
Order 52 of the Rules of Court
Order 52 of the Rules of Court sets out the various rules that apply to Contempt of Court proceedings. It is worth taking note that where contempt of Court is committed in connection with any proceedings within any Court (in Singapore) an order of committal may be made by that Court (Order 52 Rule 1) by that Court (i.e. the High Court, a Family Court and the State Court). However if the contempt of Court is committed outside the proceedings of any Court (in Singapore) the order of committal can only be made by the High Court.
It is also important to note that these committal proceedings can be taken up against an individual, a body corporate (a company) and even a third party (someone not the Plaintiff / Defendant in the ongoing case).
Will you go to Jail for Contempt of Court?
The general principle adopted by the Singapore Courts is that if there is a reasonable alternative to committal (jail) proceedings the alternative should be use and/or explored first (Court of Appeal decision in Lee Shieh Peen Clement & Anor. V . Ho Chin Nguang & Ors). The Courts will only commit a person to jail for contempt only after other options have been exhausted. It is important to note that the Courts will consider the attitude of the offender before it exercises its discretion, the Court may also choose to merely reprimand the offender sternly if he or she promises to comply with the Court Order or if he or she has already complied with the order since the summons for committal was served on him or her.
While it is unlikely to be jailed for Contempt of Court, being defiant and unwilling to follow a Court Order may land you in Jail.
Why was it necessary for Parliament to pass a new Bill on contempt of Court?
The Bill aimed to codify all of the existing common law rules on contempt of Court into a single Act and introduce new ways of dealing with contempt of Court in an age of social media. The Act is therefore useful in that it helps to clarify what kind of behaviour does and does not amount to contempt of Court.
For example, based on guidelines released by the Ministry of Law, while the case is ongoing, it is generally acceptable to discuss in private whether an accused person is guilty as such behaviour would not risk interfering with the case or causing the issue to be pre-judged.
For the same reasons, it would also be acceptable to run a public campaign in favour of changing the law that the accused person was is charged with – for example, by advocating for a lower maximum sentence for a particular offence
However, a person could still be found guilty of contempt of Court if he or she ran a public campaign while a trial of an accused person was ongoing claiming that the accused person was guilty of the crime.
Only when the case has concluded and is not susceptible to interference, would is be acceptable to discuss the case publically after Court proceedings had ended, to consider whether the sentence or judgement given was fair.
However, it would not be acceptable to make a baseless claim that a judge is biased or corrupt – for example, by claiming that the judge gave a rich and famous person a lighter sentence.
The Act also states a maximum penalty for offences of contempt of Court as there had been no such maximum under the common-law rules.
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