Court of Appeal reserves judgement in City Harvest Church criminal reference case

6 former City Harvest Church leaders back in court for criminal reference hearing (Reuters)
6 former City Harvest Church leaders back in court for criminal reference hearing (Reuters)

The Court of Appeal on Tuesday (1 August) reserved judgement in the criminal reference case filed by the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to seek clarification on the High Court’s ruling in the City Harvest Church case.

The AGC filed the appeal after six CHC leaders had their jail terms cut following a High Court’s split decision in April this year to reduce their charges to a lesser charge of criminal breach of trust.

CHC founder Kong Hee, Chew Eng Han, Tan Ye Peng, John Lam, Serina Wee and Sharon Tan appeared in a packed courtroom this morning. Apart from Chew, who is on bail to prepare his legal case, the rest donned purple prison overalls. Tan, Kong and Lam sported crew cuts while the women had bobs.

The hearing on Tuesday revolved around the wording of section 409 of the penal code – the charge that the CHC leaders were originally facing. They were initially given jail terms of between 21 months and eights years but had their terms slashed to between seven months and three years six months based on the lesser charge of section 406 after all six appealed against their convictions and sentences.

Opening the hearing was Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair, whose argument pivoted on the wording of section 409. He was heard by a five-judge panel comprising Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, and Justices Belinda Ang, Quentin Loh, and Chua Lee Ming.

Nair argued that the majority of the High Court judges had made a “fundamental error” in interpreting the phrase “in the way of his business”.

He said that while the phrase can refer to a commercial activity done for profit, that is not its only meaning. It could also be interpreted as “in the course of one’s regular duties or functions”, Nair said.

The purpose and intention of section 409 is to punish “more severely persons who held positions of trust and confidence whose breaches of trust would have serious consequences”. The section has “nothing to do with whether these persons were engaged in profit making, offered their services to the community at large or were external to the persons entrusting them with property”, Nair added.

The majority also failed to appreciate that the word “agent” in the phrase “in the way of his business…as an agent” has a specific legal meaning, referring to a person who agrees to “act on a principal’s behalf, undertakes fiduciary obligations towards the principal, and has the authority to affect the principal’s legal position”, Nair pointed out.

The interpretation by the majority of section 409 includes only professional agents who are in an external relationship with the person entrusting the property. This external/internal distinction “does not reflect the extent of trust and confidence reposed in offenders who commit CBT”.

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