Offences Against the Dead and What Family Members Can Do
When a person passes away, there are certain rules that ensure the protection of their rights and dignity. For example, visitors to their place of burial are requested to demonstrate proper respect and act with care and consideration. Unfortunately, there are a number of people who do not respect and accord the deceased with such rights.
This article will help you to identify some of the possible offences for infringing upon a deceased’s rights in Singapore, such as:
- Disturbing the deceased’s resting place
- Defaming the dead
- Misappropriating properties of the dead
- Illegally photographing the dead and sharing the photos
It will also cover the actions family members can take against offenders (see below).
Disturbing the Deceased’s Resting Place
Under section 297 of the Penal Code, it is illegal to trespass on burial places. A person would have committed trespass on burial places if the trespass was committed in:
- A place of worship;
- A place of burial (e.g. a cemetery); or
- A place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead.
The person must have also:
- Intended to either wound the feelings of any person or insult their religion; or
- Known that their actions would have wounded another person’s feelings or insulted their religion.
Any concerned family member should make a police report if they discover anyone who is trespassing upon such grounds. If the offender is found guilty of committing trespass on burial places, he will be punished with imprisonment of up to 3 years, a fine or both.
Defaming the Dead
Under section 499 of the Penal Code, it is an offence to defame a person, even if they are deceased.
For a person to be prosecuted for defaming a deceased person, it must be shown that the defamer:
- Intended, knew or had reason to believe that his words, signs or visible representations would harm the reputation of the deceased if he had been alive; and
- Intended to hurt the feelings of the deceased’s family or other close relatives.
If convicted of criminal defamation, the perpetrator will be punished with imprisonment for a term of up to 2 years, a fine or both.
Misappropriating Properties of the Dead
Under section 404 of the Penal Code, it is an offence to misappropriate any property of a deceased. Misappropriation refers to the act of pocketing property that you come across and that does not belong to you.
A person can be charged with dishonestly misappropriating a deceased’s belongings if:
- He took the property from a deceased person;
- He knew that it belonged to the deceased person at the time of his death; and
- The property had not been in the possession of anyone legally entitled to it.
For example, at the time of his passing, A had in possession some furniture and money. If his helper, B, dishonestly misappropriates these items before they can be distributed to those who are entitled to it, such as under a will, B would have committed the offence of dishonest misappropriation of property belonging to the dead.
If an accused person is found guilty of dishonest misappropriation of property belonging to a deceased, he will be punished with a jail term of up to 3 years and will also be liable to a fine. The maximum jail term is increased to 7 years if the accused had been employed as a clerk or servant at the time of the deceased’s death.
Illegally Photographing the Dead and Sharing the Photos
The Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) regulates the disclosure and protection of personal data about a deceased who has been dead for 10 years or fewer. Under the PDPA, personal data can include photographs of the deceased.
A photograph of the deceased can be taken without consent only if it was for the purpose of facilitating contact with the next-of-kin or a friend of the deceased. For example, a bystander could take the photograph of a victim of a fatal accident if this was to help identify the next-of-kin or friends of the victim.
The police can also collect and disclose photographs of the deceased in the interest of the public, such as for police investigations.
What happens if one shares the photograph of the deceased?
Apart from the scenarios listed in the PDPA, other legislation such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA) also prohibit taking and/or sharing of photos of the deceased if the photos had been, among other situations, obtained due to his employment as a public servant or his being engaged by the government.
Persons who share such photos may be found guilty of wrongful communication of information and be punished with a fine of up to $2,000 and an imprisonment term of up to 2 years if convicted in the District Court. On the other hand, if they are convicted in the Magistrate’s Court, they may be punished with a fine of up to $1,000 and an imprisonment term of up to 6 months instead.
In August 2018, a 27-year-old woman pleaded guilty to wrongful communication of information under the OSA for the unauthorised sharing of photos. At that time, she had been working as a paramedic for Unistrong Technology, a company that was hired by the SCDF, a government organisation. Her employment contract stated that information obtained during the course of her work should be kept strictly confidential.
However, she had shared two photos, that she had obtained whilst on duty, with her 29-year-old boyfriend. One photo related to an SCDF call sheet, while another showed a deceased’s body. She ended up being fined $3,000.
Separately, her boyfriend also shared the photos that he had wrongfully received with his friends, who had also not been authorised to receive them. This made his act of sharing the photos with his friends also an offence under the OSA, for which he was also fined $3,000.
What Can Family Members of the Deceased Do?
If family members of the deceased discover that any of the above offences may have been committed, they should report this to the police. If the police decides not to take up the case for further investigation, the family members may seek to press charges by filing for a Magistrate’s Complaint.
If the Magistrate is satisfied that the application is in order, he may do any of the following:
- Issue a Notice to both parties to attend criminal mediation;
- Issue a Summons against the alleged offender for private prosecution provided that the charge(s) are available;
- Issue a Summons for a person to assist with the complaint, if the Magistrate requires the assistance of witnesses or experts in the case;
- Direct the police to conduct an investigation into the complaint, for the State to decide whether to prosecute the offender;
- Postpone the complaint for both parties to negotiate a settlement; or
- Dismiss the complaint.
For more information, refer to our article on filing a Magistrate’s Complaint in Singapore.
If family members discover photographs of the deceased in any publication, they can request for the other party to remove the photograph expeditiously. Should the other party not comply, the following legal actions could be taken:
- Submit a complaint to the Personal Data Protection Commission, which may then investigate whether the organisation that produced the publication has breached the PDPA.
- Sue the other party for harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act.
- Report to the police for criminal defamation relating to a deceased person.
Filing your own complaint or suing the accused is a complicated matter and may prove to be an even greater source of stress in your time of grief.
If you are a concerned family member, it may be best to engage a criminal lawyer. An experienced lawyer will be able to properly advise you on the right steps to take to preserve the dignity of your deceased loved one.
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