How sub judice works in Singapore

by Nurul Azliah

Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam on Tuesday spoke about sub judice during his ministerial statement on the Benjamin Lim case in Parliament.

Before he began to lay out the facts leading to the death of the 14-year-old student, he explained that he had consulted the Attorney-General’s Chambers for advice on what he could say in his ministerial statement, as the Coroner’s Inquiry into the death was still pending.

“Sub Judice principles set out what can and cannot be said when a court hearing, inquiry, is pending,” he said.

He added that statements which imply the five officers had interviewed Benjamin, that the police had intimidated the deceased into wrongly admitting to guilt, that the officers were not wearing plain clothes, and that these were some of the reasons that could possible lead to the suicide, may possibly infringe the principles of sub judice.

So what is sub judice?

According to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), sub judice is a form of contempt of court, is “essentially conduct that may impede the functionality of the court”.

Sub judice comprises a range of acts which risk “prejudicing or interfering with particular legal proceedings”.

For example, on 11 February 2015, the AGC published a release to remind the public not to post comments online that could affect the ongoing proceedings relating to a case of three men who were charged on 7 February 2015 for an incident during a Thaipusam proceeding.  

Lawyers that Yahoo Singapore spoke to said the objective of sub judice is to prevent people from making public statements that could influence the minds of decision makers in court.

In the past, these decision makers included the jury. However, the jury system had already been abolished in 1969. Today, the only decision maker in court is the judge.

When can one be liable for sub judice?

Generally, one can be liable for sub judice contempt after court proceedings have commenced.

When a crime has taken place and the media report on it, sub judice infringement is not possible. However, a member of the media could be liable if he or she publishes an article that could risk prejudice after the accused related to the crime has been charged in court - this is when court proceedings have commenced.

Court proceedings refer to any action that happens in court, including the Coroner’s Inquiry (CI).

A coroner is a judge appointed by the state court, and has the duty to determine the cause of death after holding an inquiry, according to the Coroners Act. The chief executive of the Health Sciences Authority will appoint a forensic pathologist to investigate the cause of and circumstances connected to the death of the deceased.

If a coroner wishes to not hold an inquiry, the coroner will have to report the facts to the public prosecutor with reasons for not holding it.

Shanmugam spoke in Parliament on Tuesday about Benjamin Lim before the CI concluded. He will not be liable for sub judice as the minister is also a public official. He said in his ministerial statement on Tuesday that public officials can make statements “if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest - even if there is a hearing pending”.

With that said, it is up to the court to assess whether there is sufficient basis to have the person alleged to have committed contempt be brought to court, or whether the application should be dismissed.

The penalty under the supreme court of judicature act is imprisonment not exceeding six months and/or fine not exceeding $2,000. 

Related stories:

No intention to imply that Benjamin Lim’s death was caused by ‘police intimidation’: Lawyer Thio Shen Yi

Nothing suggests that Benjamin Lim was mistreated by the police: Shanmugam

We cannot forgive the way my son was treated: Benjamin’s father in open letter

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