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. It does so by making it a criminal offence to engage in various harassing acts. Victims of harassment in Singapore also have the option of suing their harasser for compensation in the Protection from Harassment Courts (PHC).
This article will cover:
Offences Covered under the POHA in Singapore
Causing harassment, alarm and distress
The POHA criminalises behaviour that 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 distressed, 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 that 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.
Another offence under the POHA is doxxing, which 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 the protection against 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 in Singapore.
Penalties and Liability Under the POHA for Acts of Harassment in Singapore
Individuals and entities may both be held liable for harassment-related offences
Both individuals and entities (such as companies) can be held liable for harassment-related offences.
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.
As family members of the victim may be at risk of harassment as well, POs and EPOs do not cover only victims, but also persons related to the victim.
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.
Remedies for victims of falsehoods
Both private entities and individuals who have been subjected to acts of falsehoods are able to obtain remedies against such acts under POHA.
A summary of the available orders to combat the spread of falsehoods is set down below:
- 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 spread falsehoods. 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.
The Protection from Harassment Courts
The Protection from Harassment Courts provides a “one-stop solution” for harassment victims in Singapore. It hears both criminal and civil cases under POHA, and offers simplified filing procedures and expedited case timelines to harassment victims seeking compensation/or and court orders.
For claims of damages up to $20,000 and applications for POs for example, instead of having to file an originating application, victims will be able to submit a more straightforward claim form online.
The Protection from Harassment Courts aims 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.
Learn more about the Protection from Harassment Courts in our other article.
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 in Singapore, it is understandable that you may be facing immense pressure or even fear. Do consider consulting a protection from harassment lawyer who will be able to assist you in seeking appropriate redress to alleviate your distress.