Guide to Singapore’s Protection from Harassment Act (POHA)
The Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), which entered into force in November 2014, seeks to protect people from being targets of harassment or stalking, whether online or in real life.
More recently, in order to enhance protection and bolster the effectiveness of the POHA’s criminal and civil measures against acts of harassment, a series of amendments were introduced to protect victims of falsehoods. This includes a new criminal offence known as doxxing.
This article will consolidate the laws in the current version of POHA, as well as the upcoming amendments.
Offences Covered under the POHA
Causing harassment, alarm and distress
The POHA criminalises behaviour which harasses, alarms or distresses a victim.
Under section 3 of the POHA, a person who threatens, abuses or insults (whether by behaviour, words or other forms of communication) with the intention to cause and did cause another person harassment, alarm or distress, will be guilty of an offence.
For example, co-worker X loudly and graphically describes X’s desire to have a sexual relationship with co-worker Y to other co-workers in an insulting manner. X does so while knowing that Y can hear this and intending to cause Y distress. If Y does in fact feel distress, X has committed an offence.
The maximum punishment for the offence of intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or an imprisonment term of up to 6 months. These maximum penalties are doubled for repeat offenders.
Note that under section 4 of the POHA, threatening, abusive or insulting acts that are likely to cause a victim to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed is sufficient to constitute an offence. Thus, even if an individual did not intend to cause harassment, alarm or distress, an individual may still be punished for his acts.
For example, if X posts comments about Y on a widely-accessible social media platform which causes Y distress, X will be found guilty even if he had not intended for Y to feel distressed.
Such an offence will attract a fine of up to $5,000. Repeat offenders may expect enhanced penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and/or an imprisonment term of up to 6 months.
Causing fear or provocation of violence
It is an offence to intentionally cause someone to believe, or behave in a manner where such a person is likely to believe, that unlawful violence will be used against him. This offence is different from the one above as there is a threat of physical violence while harassment, alarm or distress are non-physical forms of harm.
For instance, X posts threatening and abusive remarks on a publicly-accessible website. Subsequently, on the same website, X writes a post containing Y’s identity information and threatens to beat Y up. X has committed an offence for making the threat of physical violence.
The maximum penalties for causing fear or provocation of violence is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or an imprisonment term of up to 12 months. These maximum penalties are doubled for repeat offenders.
Unlawful stalking is an offence under the POHA. A course of conduct will be considered unlawful stalking where it:
- Involves acts or omissions associated with stalking;
- Causes harassment, alarm or distress; and
- Was intended or was known to be likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
Examples of acts of unlawful stalking include:
- Following someone
- Loitering in areas near someone’s home or business
- Giving or leaving someone gifts despite being asked to stop doing so
- Keeping someone under surveillance
- Repeated circulation of revealing photographs of a classmate to other classmates
A person who is convicted for the offence of unlawful stalking will face a fine of up to $5,000, and/or an imprisonment term of up to 12 months. These maximum penalties are doubled for repeat offenders.
For more information, please refer to our article on unlawful stalking.
A new offence under the POHA is doxxing, which came into operation on 1 January 2020. Doxxing refers to the publication of someone’s personal information with the intention to harass, threaten or facilitate violence against them. This new offence is targeted at enhancing protection of undesirable online behaviour.
An example of doxxing is sharing a person’s personal information on social media and asking others to “teach him a lesson”.
For the publication of personal information with the intention to harass, the penalties are a fine of up to $5,000 and/or an imprisonment term of 6 months.
For the publication of personal information to cause or facilitate violence, the penalties are a fine of up to $5,000 and/or an imprisonment term of 12 months.
These maximum penalties are doubled for repeat offenders.
For more information, please refer to our article on doxxing.
Penalties and Liabilities
Individuals and entities may both be held liable for harassment-related offences
Under the amendments, it is made clear that both individuals and entities can be held liable for harassment-related offences. This is an important clarification since the term “person” was used previously and created uncertainty as to whether companies and organisations were covered under POHA.
Prosecution of overseas offenders
It is possible to prosecute overseas POHA offenders if at the time of the offence:
- The victim was in Singapore; and
- The offender knew or had reason to believe that the victim was in Singapore.
For example, where an overseas offender, knowing that the victim studies in Singapore, circulates revealing photographs of a victim (who is in Singapore) to her classmates, he/she may be charged and convicted of unlawful stalking in Singapore.
Enhanced penalties for offences against certain victims
The penalties for offences against two particular groups of victims are stiffer.
The maximum penalties for offences against vulnerable persons, i.e persons with mental and physical disabilities, regardless of age, is doubled. For example, an individual or entity who commits the offence of causing fear or provocation of violence against a vulnerable person can be fined up to $10,000, and/or jailed for up to 24 months.
Enhanced penalties also apply where the victim is in an intimate relationship with the offender. Where the offender knew or ought reasonably to have known that the victim was in an intimate relationship with him/her, the maximum penalties are doubled.
The victim and offender need not be married to be considered to be in an intimate relationship. Rather, the court will determine whether or not both parties are in an intimate relationship based on the facts and circumstances.
Factors the court will consider include:
- Whether or not both parties are living in the same household
- Whether they share the tasks and duties of their daily lives
Other Remedies Provided under the POHA
Remedies for victims of harassment
Apart from criminal punishment, a harasser may be sued by the victim in court in a civil action for damages. The victim may also apply for a Protection Order (PO) or Enhanced Protection Order (EPO) to prevent the harasser from continuing his unwanted behaviour or communication.
The upcoming POHA amendments will further strengthen the PO regime in several respects.
Among these changes include how POs and EPOs will be extended to cover not just victims, but also persons related to the victim. This is introduced in light of how family members of the victim may be at risk of harassment as well and thus also require protection.
In addition, the police may make an arrest without a warrant where the harasser is reasonably suspected to have failed to comply with a PO or EPO. Presently, the police cannot arrest a harasser in breach of a PO or EPO. However, the amendments will allow the police to arrest a harasser without a warrant where this is required, such as where there is continued harassment.
Remedies for victims of falsehoods
The new amendments are also expected to provide better recourse to victims of falsehoods. Under the amendments, entities that are victims of falsehoods will also be able to obtain remedies against such falsehoods, instead of just individuals.
The current POHA gives the court the power to make an order (known as a “stop publication order”) prohibiting the further publishing of false statements. The new amendments will expand the scope of orders, so that the court will be empowered to make a range of orders against an individual or entity alleged to have spread falsehoods:
- Stop publication order. This requires the offender to stop publishing the false statement by a specified time.
- General and targeted correction order. This requires the offender to publish a correction notice within a specified time, in a specified form.
- Disabling order. This is an order which requires an internet intermediary to disable access by users to content that allegedly. Where the court finds the need to expedite the making of such an order, an interim disabling order (serving the same purpose) may be made while the disabling order is still being applied for.
Upcoming Establishment of Protection from Harassment Courts
The Protection from Harassment Courts (PHC) will be established to provide a “one-stop solution” for harassment victims.
In the existing system, victims may have to file multiple applications or repeat the process of providing evidence in order to get recourse for harassment. For example, a victim who has already filed a Magistrate’s Complaint but also requires a PO will have to separately apply for one in the Civil Court. This means that he/she will have to reproduce the evidence again for the PO application.
With the PHC, both criminal and civil cases under POHA will be heard by this specialised court. Victims may expect simplified filing procedures and expedited case timelines when seeking claims for damages and court orders under POHA at the PHC.
For claims of damages up to $20,000 and applications for POs for example, instead of having to file an Originating Summons, victims will be able to submit a more straightforward claim form online.
Once in operation, the PHC will aim to hear applications for POs and EPOs within 4 weeks and 48-72 hours respectively, and within 24 hours for more urgent cases involving an element of violence.
All in all, it is hopeful that POHA places victims of harassment and falsehoods in a better position to obtain the appropriate remedies. If you are a victim of harassment, it is understandable that you may be facing immense pressure or even fear. Do consider engaging a protection from harassment lawyer who will be able to assist you in seeking appropriate redress to alleviate your distress.