What is the Offence of Contempt of Court in Singapore?
In 2023, the Chief editor of the sociopolitical website, The Online Citizen (TOC), was fined $18,000 for contempt of court. He had reposted an open letter by an Australian citizen who questioned the equity of Singapore’s justice system.
Previously, a prominent lawyer was fined $6,000 for being in contempt of court by posting on Facebook a poem alleged to cast certain aspersions on the Singapore judiciary. It didn’t matter that he had already removed the post, publicly apologised and clarified that he had no intention of criticising the judiciary.
These cases serve as a good reminder – especially with the proliferation of social media and social commentary – of the need for individuals to take extra care when publishing or disseminating any articles which could be seen as showing contempt towards the judiciary. This article hopes to shed some light and increase awareness of the law with regard to contempt of court.
What Constitutes Contempt of Court?
The law on contempt of court in Singapore can be found in the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (AJPA).
There are 4 main types of conduct which constitute contempt of court. These are:
- Scandalising the court
- Interfering with the administration of justice
- Disobedience of court orders
- Sub judice contempt
1. Scandalising the court e.g. by making baseless attacks on the judiciary
This is covered under section 3(1)(a) of the AJPA, which makes it an offence for an individual to intentionally publish any matter or do any act that:
- Imputes improper motives to or impugns the integrity, propriety or impartiality of any court; and
- Poses a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined.
To ascertain the existence of a “risk”, the court is simply guided by this central question: “Is the risk one that the reasonable person coming across the contemptuous statement would think needs guarding against so as to avoid undermining public confidence in the administration of justice?”
Further, according to section 3(2) of the AJPA, the contemnor would be guilty of contempt by scandalising the court even if he/she did not intend to scandalise the court.
2. Interfering with the administration of justice
This is covered under section 3(1)(c), (d) and (e) of the AJPA, which respectively make it an offence for an individual to intentionally:
- Interfere with or hinder another person’s access to or ability to appear in court, knowing that this person is a party, witness, advocate or judge in ongoing court proceedings;
- Offer any insult or cause any interruption or obstruction to any judge sitting in court proceedings; and
- Do any other act that interferes with or obstructs the administration of justice (or poses a real risk of the same) in any other manner, if the person knows, or ought to have known, that the act would have such an effect.
3. Disobedience of court orders e.g. disobeying court orders or undertakings
This is covered under section 4 of the AJPA, which makes it an offence for an individual to intentionally:
- Disobey or breach any judgment, decree, direction, order, writ or other court process; or
- Breach any undertaking given to a court.
4. Sub judice contempt e.g. attempting to influence the outcome of cases
This is covered under section 3(1)(b) of the AJPA, which makes it an offence for an individual to intentionally publish any matter that:
- Prejudges a pending issue in a court proceeding, where such prejudgment prejudices or interferes with the course of any pending court proceeding (or poses a real risk to or interference with the same); or
- Otherwise does so.
Under section 5 of the AJPA, unauthorised recordings (both audio and video) of court proceedings are also considered to be in contempt of court.
Defences to Contempt of Court
Fair criticism (contempt by scandalising the court only)
Fair criticism is a defence only in relation to contempt by scandalising the court. It can be found in Explanation 1 to section 3(1) of the AJPA.
It was held in Au Wai Pang that criticism was said to be fair when there is a rational basis for the criticism and such rational basis is accurately stated.
Fair and accurate report made in good faith
A fair and accurate report of court proceedings will not constitute contempt of court if it is published in good faith, under section 14 of the AJPA.
The court will consider a wide spectrum of factors when determining whether a report was made in good faith. These factors include:
- Whether there is some reason or basis for the report;
- Whether the report was expressed in a temperate and dispassionate manner; and
- The attitude of the individual who published the report in court.
In addition, under section 16 of the AJPA, reports which allege corruption or misconduct of a judge will not constitute contempt of court if such reports:
- Are made in good faith; and
- Disclose grounds which, if unrebutted, would provide a sufficient basis for the investigation of the allegation of misconduct or corruption.
The filing of any action, application, affidavit or pleadings against a judge (including an application seeking the disqualification of any judge) will also not constitute contempt of court if such filing was done in good faith.
Anyone who exercises editorial responsibility or other control over a publication will not be guilty of contempt of court if such publication was done:
- Without his or her authority, consent or knowledge; and
- Without any want of due care or caution on his or her part.
This defence is provided for under section 18 of the AJPA. However, that person cannot be the author of the publication, i.e. the originator of the matter published.
Penalties for Contempt of Court
The penalties for contempt of court differ depending on the level of court exercising the power to punish for contempt as follows:
- Where the power to punish for contempt is exercised by the General Division of the High Court, by the Appellate Division of the High Court or by the Court of Appeal: Fined up to $100,000 and/or jailed for up to 3 years.
- Where the power to punish for contempt is exercised by the General Division of the High Court in relation to contempt in the face of or in connection with any proceedings in a State Court, Family Court or Youth Court: Fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for up to 12 months.
- Where the power to punish for contempt is exercised by any other court: Fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for up to 12 months.
The court may additionally make an order that the contemnor publish a notice in a manner the court thinks necessary to apologise for the contemptuous publication.
Contempt of court should not be taken lightly.
Individuals are advised to be careful when writing commentaries or reports, especially where these relate to the judiciary.
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