Consequences of Receiving a Stern Warning in Singapore

Last updated on October 19, 2020

Policeman holding up a document with the heading "STERN WARNING"

What is a Stern Warning?

A stern warning, often described as a “slap on the wrist”, is a warning issued to individuals in Singapore in lieu of prosecution after a criminal investigation is closed.

Stern warnings seek to deter individuals from committing offences and may be issued verbally or in written form. They do not come with any conditions attached.

In September 2020, Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan was issued a stern warning for her comments made on social media that allegedly promoted enmity among different racial and religious groups, and scandalised the court.

When May a Stern Warning be Issued?

A stern warning may be issued at various stages of criminal proceedings. For example, an individual may be issued a stern warning:

  • While being investigated for an offence (even if he is not ultimately charged with an offence); or
  • After being charged with an offence.

It is unclear how much evidence the authorities will need in order to decide to issue a stern warning. However, stern warnings are generally given only to individuals who have never been convicted of an offence before. Individuals who have previously been convicted of an offence are unlikely to receive stern warnings.

How is a Stern Warning Different From a Conditional Warning?

Apart from a stern warning, there is also a type of warning known as the conditional warning. Unlike stern warnings, conditional warnings come with conditions that the individual has to comply with.

For example, a condition of the conditional warning may require an individual to not commit any offence for a period of time (such as 12 months).

If any condition in the conditional warning is breached, the authorities have the right to prosecute the individual for the original offence that he had been warned for, and also for any fresh offences committed.

In April 2019, NUS undergraduate Nicholas Lim was issued a conditional warning for trespassing into a female washroom and filming a female student in the shower without her consent.

What are the Consequences of Being Issued a Stern Warning?

Will the offence for which a stern warning was issued be part of the individual’s criminal record?

A stern warning is not a criminal conviction.

Accordingly, individuals who have been given stern warnings in relation to certain offences will not have a criminal record for those offences.

However, records of stern warnings are maintained by the police. It is unclear how long these records will be kept for.

What happens if the individual had already been charged with an offence before receiving the stern warning?

If the individual had already been charged with an offence before receiving the stern warning, a Discharge Amounting to an Acquittal (DATA) will be issued. The DATA indicates that the individual is found not guilty of an offence, and the criminal charge will be dropped.

If the individual had been given a conditional warning after being charged with an offence, the DATA will be issued only after all conditions in the conditional warning have been complied with.

Can an individual who has been given a Discharge Not Amounting to an Acquittal receive a stern warning?

Apart from a DATA, it is also possible for an individual to receive a Discharge Not Amounting to an Acquittal (also known as DNATA or DNAQ).

An individual who has been given a DNATA may still be prosecuted for the offence in the future. This could happen if new evidence becomes available, for example.

However, it is possible for an individual who has been given a DNATA to later receive a stern warning if the prosecution decides to drop the charge.

Will offences for which stern warnings have been issued be taken as past criminal behaviour?

Stern warnings (and conditional warnings) have no legal effect and are not binding on individuals who have received them.

As a result, they cannot be treated as criminal antecedents (i.e. previous convictions) if the individual is being sentenced for a different offence later on.

Can the individual who has received the stern warning still be subject to private prosecution over the same conduct?

In a private prosecution, an individual (or his lawyer) will be the one prosecuting the accused, instead of a Public Prosecutor. You can read more about private prosecutions in our other article.

In Singapore, it is still an open question whether an individual who has received a stern warning can still be subject to private prosecution.

While this appears to be the case in the UK, it remains to be seen whether local courts will adopt a similar position.

Can the individual still be sued over the same conduct?

An individual who has been issued a stern warning can still be sued by the victim(s) in respect of his actions.

In some cases, the issuance of a stern warning may form part of the victim’s case in proving their cause of action.

We hope that this article has helped you better understand the issuance and consequences of stern warnings and conditional warnings in Singapore.

Nevertheless, given that there are many uncertainties with regard to the issuance of stern warnings, it might be best for those being issued with stern warnings to seek legal advice from a criminal lawyer on how to proceed.

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