TL-DR -The people who are the loudest on these issues are usually the people who can take care of themselves.
OK, so you’ve read all over social media about the Government’s proposal to legislate an Administration of Justice Bill and the hullabaloo between Dr Lee Wei Ling and well, whomever was even involved.
The Bill was read in Parliament for a second time today (15 August 2016).
But hang on, what is this Bill all about? And for the record, this “Bill” here is not what you get at the end of a meal, nor is it the name of the spouse of a US Presidential candidate.
In legal-speak, a Bill is a proposal for a new law. Parliament will debate and vote to accept before a Bill is passed.
Before a Ministry instructs AGC on a new Bill or an amendment Bill, the Ministry would have sought in-principle approval from the Cabinet for the proposed Bill. The Legislation Division will advise and help vet or draft the Bill. Thereafter, approval from the Ministry of Law is required, followed by the Cabinet’s approval, before the Bill can be introduced in Parliament.
The procedure for the passage of Bills in Parliament is laid down in the Standing Orders of Parliament. Every Bill must pass through the following stages:
– Introduction and First Reading
– Second Reading
– Committee stage (Select Committee where Parliament so determines)
– Third Reading.
All Bills passed by Parliament must be forwarded to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) except for money Bills, urgent Bills and Bills affecting defence, security, public safety, peace or good order in Singapore. After the Bill has been scrutinised by the PCMR to ensure that it does not discriminate against any racial or religious community, it is presented to the President for his assent. Only after the President has assented to the Bill does the Bill become law (i.e. an Act of Parliament).
There’s a rather clear flowchart of how it all works here.
After the Bill is passed, it will then be called an Act. The Administration of Justice Bill, once passed, will make it wrong to interfere with the justice system, otherwise known as “contempt of court”.
So which stage are we at now?
Parliament’s in session today (YAY! Joseph Schooling!), and Minister for Home Affairs and Law, Shanmugam, has moved for the bill to be read for a second time.
After a lengthy discussion during the second reading in Parliament, the bill was eventually passed with 72 votes for the Bill and nine against.
Why do we need to pass a bill on this?
Contempt of court has always been an offence, but under the Common Law. This means that the law of contempt of court is based on previous court rulings.
What the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill tries to do is to consolidate the key elements of the law of contempt into statute. The Bill would ensure court orders are obeyed, individuals have the right to a fair trial and high levels of trust in Singapore’s legal system are preserved. That will provide greater clarity and certainty on what constitutes contempt.
The move to codify the existing law on contempt also comes as it is the only criminal offence not written in the statute today.
Common law and statutory law are two systems of law used in the Singapore judicial system, and in fact in most other countries. Common law is based on prior court decisions while statutory law is made by the legislature.
Our Common law, inherited from the British, is an important aspect of the Singapore legal framework.In other words, the law is created by judgments handed down by the courts. Common law, also known as case law, allows judges to render decisions based on the rulings of earlier cases.
Statutory laws are written laws passed by legislature and government of a country and those which have been accepted by the society. In Singapore, the Legislature is made up of the Parliament and an elected president.
You can read more about Singapore law here.
Which areas does the bill cover?
Under the Bill, there are three main types of conduct which constitute contempt of court.
- 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.
Once the bill Those who are found guilty of court contempt at the High Court or Court of Appeal may be fined up to S$100,000 or jailed up to three years, or both. For other courts, the penalty may be up to a S$20,000 fine or imprisonment up to 12 months, or both. Click here for a clear summary of the bill.
Minister Shanmugam said these during the second reading of the bill today, “Think about it: A person is a defendant in a criminal trial. He could face years in prison. Do we really say it is okay to prejudice his right to a fair trial? What happens to the presumption of innocence and the basic right to a fair trial?”
“You balance that against someone’s wish to comment on the proceedings, which prejudices the proceedings. You balance the chap in court, his rights, against another person’s desire.”
“Do we really want to say to the ordinary man in the street that it is okay for his trial to be prejudiced, and it is okay for him to be unfairly treated, because it is incidental to someone else’s right to comment?”
“The people who are the loudest on these issues are usually the people who can take care of themselves,. We are here to protect all Singaporeans, including those voices which are not heard.” – Minister Shanmugam
What about freedom of speech?
Minister Shanmugam said passing the bill is a necessary act. He said we need to be specific – and explain what exactly is being curtailed.
“You can comment on policies, you can debate public issues. What you cannot do is to say something that actually prejudices a specific case, or has a serious, real risk of prejudicing a specific case. That legal position has worked well for us all these years.” – Minister Shanmugam
Labour Member of Parliament Patrick Tay, who’s also a lawyer himself, said that the new Bill is a positive step forward as it “provides greater clarity and certainty on what constitutes contempt”.
“It will also ensure that court orders are obeyed, that the right to a fair trial is preserved for everyone, and that the trust in the judiciary is not eroded by attacks on its integrity.” – Patrick Tay
How’s your life and mine gonna change with the new Bill?
Probably not much, to be honest. I assume most of us are not the sort to go around showing contempt of court.
But with this new Bill, it is likely to be easier and clearer to determine what should amount to contempt and what punishment could potentially be meted out. Before this, the law of contempt of court is based upon previous court rulings, hence, it was not clear and many would argue over what is contempt. Thus the new Bill consolidates the key elements of the law of contempt into statute.
Like what Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) said in Parliament, the new law, on the whole, would add clarity and certainty to what constitutes contempt, as people would know how far they can go without running afoul of the law, and the consequences of doing so.
“This will also allow people, especially those who previously tended to err on the side of caution, now to speak with confidence and to speak more freely.” – Dr Lily Neo
In fact, while some may say the Bill restricts freedom of speech, the intent is actually to protects people, particularly the vulnerable ones.
[textmarker color=”000000″]Updated 16/8[/textmarker]
The Law Minister and MPs were at it for a (record?) seven hours yesterday. They started discussion on the bill after lunch and finally wrapped at 9:30PM! Here, a summary of who said what in CNA’s video highlights.
What exactly did Lee Wei Ling say?
What’s this new administration of justice bill?
Marathon debate in Parliament over Bill on Contempt of Court
Bill is to protect rights of accused persons and integrity of judiciary
NMP Kok Heng Leun’s open sharing on Facebook