If you’re uncertain about whether or not to be angry at the Government’s proposal to push through an “Administration of Justice Bill”, here are some quick facts to help you decide.
Firstly, what is “legislation”?
If you’ve heard people quote something like “Section 123 of XYZ Act”, that’s legislation, also known as statutory law. It is written and published and obeyed like a book of rules. Parliament votes to pass these laws (and that’s why your Members of Parliament are also known as law makers, or legislators).
Statutory law is not the only type of law around. There is also this other thing called the “Common Law”. When Courts encounter cases which are not written down by law makers, they use similar cases that have happened in the past to help them decide what to do with the present case.
What then, is a “Bill”?
You can say that a Bill is merely a proposal for a new piece of legislation. Parliament has to debate and vote to accept before a Bill can be passed. Once passed, the Bill will be called an Act.
So what is the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill?
It is a Bill that formally makes it wrong to interfere with the system of justice; also known as “contempt of court”.
If you disobey an order of the judge, that’s contempt of court.
If you raise a middle finger to the judge in the midst of court proceedings, that’s utter contempt of court.
The Bill clarifies what amounts to a contempt, the main points of which includes:
- Publishing opinions when proceedings are underway
- Interfering with administration of justice
- Unauthorized audio/visual recordings
Why is the Government pushing this Bill now when it didn’t exist before?
It is wrong to say it didn’t exist before. Remember the common law? Contempt of court has always been a punishable act, not just here but almost anywhere where there is a system of justice.
Before this Bill, there would have been a ton of argument and research before we know what amounts to contempt and what the potential punishment is.
Is this against the freedom of speech?
Firstly, a few facts:
a.) It is clearly worded in the Bill that your publishing must “intentionally interfere or hinder” the court proceedings.
b.) You do not publish opinions that would prejudice a case that is before the courts.
There is nothing vague about this. A reasonable person knows when an opinion is designed and calculated to cause harm.
Put yourself in the shoes of a defendant, let’s say for alleged rape. You’re innocent, but then your ex-girlfriend goes to the media and claims that you have sexually assaulted her before. Contempt of court rules prevent your ex-girlfriend and the media from publishing this, hence giving you a fair trial void of prejudice.
It protects victims also; you don’t want a rape victim’s photograph splashed all over the internet.
You cannot push freedom of speech to such an extent that people suffer. The line is drawn when a matter is before the courts.
We don’t have a jury system, why should we worry about media influencing the courts?
Even if we do not have a jury system, you don’t want a situation where you get “trial by public opinion”. You don’t want innocent people incriminating themselves from undue pressure.
In the British case of Attorney-General v MGN Ltd: several newspapers ran a serious of vicious articles on a man accused of murder, demonising him and portraying him as guilty even before he was charged. In the end, someone else confessed to the crime – an innocent man was, tried and sentenced in the court of public opinion.
Prejudice doesn’t affect judges and jury alone. It also affects defendant, victim, plaintiffs, even legal counsels – and public opinion can cause such minds to crumble, consequentially interfering with the system of justice.
Should you be worried about the new Bill?
I don’t see why you should really. If a case is before the courts, a normal people would let the legal system do its work. Doesn’t matter if it’s Roy Ngerng, or Teo Soh Lung or Kong Hee – they have a right to fair trial and a fair trial means a system that is free of influence and prejudice.
After the trial is over, you and every other media has a right to voice their opinions again and the defendant has the right to appeal with new facts, moving his case to a higher court.
In today’s age of social media and online vigilantism, wrong data can go viral in just a few clicks. How many times have you grilled someone wrongfully and then regretted it when a counter story was posted?
It would be a very sad day when an accused who has yet to face trial ends up bearing the full brunt of an online campaign designed to destroy his/her reputation.
In fact, the Bill protects people:
- It makes very clear what amounts to contempt…when before, one would need extensive legal research to be sure of that.
- It spells out the punishment when before it is vague and potentially limitless.
- It protects the victims as well as the defendants
- It removes prejudice and this is is an important component in a person’s right to a fair trial.
Freedom of expression is a beautiful and righteous ideal no doubt. But your right to free speech should not impugn my right to a fair trial (should I ever need it of course).
The new Bill is hardly authoritarian, but if you so insist on labelling it as such – then I’d rather authoritarian than an anarchist’s rule by men and their opinions.