While it is “entirely legitimate” to express unhappiness over court rulings, those who challenge the integrity of judges and suggest “improper or ulterior motives” to their decisions will be prosecuted in a court of law, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday (5 February).
“Just because you don’t agree with the judges doesn’t mean you have a right to abuse them and challenge their integrity. People who abuse judges, challenge their integrity will be prosecuted if a case for contempt can be made out,” the minister said to the House.
“Criminal cases must be tried in a court of law, not in the court of public opinion,” said Shanmugam. In assessing whether the court has been scandalised by particular statements, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) will consider factors such as who said it, how seriously the statement is likely to be taken and the reach of the publication.
Shanmugam was answering supplementary questions after delivering a Ministerial Statement on the long-running City Harvest Church (CHC) case. Last Thursday, the Court of Appeals rejected the prosecution’s bid to have the six former CHC leaders’ original sentences reinstated.
While the minister made clear that it believes the sentences are too low, he added that it was now up to Parliament to amend the law on criminal breach of trust.
“We have seen comments online that the judges let off those who are rich, that some judges were lenient because they were Christians, and so on. That is not right. People are entitled to disagree with the decision, but let’s not attack the judges,” said the 58-year-old.
It was incidents like these that proved the necessity of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, said the minister, who also pointed to the posting of an image of a fake headline about the CHC case in the Facebook group called 议论政策论坛 (Discussion Policy Forum).
On 2 February, someone posted in the group an article from Chinese language daily Lianhe Wanbao with the headline, “Outdated law saved accused from harsher penalties”. However, it was instead doctored to say “PAP lawyer saved accused from harsher penalties”, a reference to the fact that Marine Parade MP Edwin Tong had acted as CHC founder Kong Hee’s lawyer.
“[It suggests] that a PAP MP was responsible for an unfair, unjust outcome,” said Shanmugam. “AGC’s view is that is a case of contempt, by scandalising the courts…it will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”
The Minister also stressed that all defendants, no matter the severity of their crimes, are entitled to get a lawyer of their choice.
In December, Shanmugam said he was “troubled” by the aspersions cast on the characters of the defence lawyers who represented a couple who were sentenced to jail for abusing their flatmate.
He noted that he had been in a “unique position” in Singapore as he once acted as a lawyer against the country’s former and current leaders. In 1995, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued the International Herald Tribune (IHT) for libel – and Shanmugam represented the IHT.
“By taking on the case, I was simply doing my professional duty… the IHT was entitled to counsel of their choice,” said the minister, who added that he has also acted for others “whose conduct would not be approved of by the general public”.
He concluded, “Lawyers should not be made to fear that they will be hounded online if they take up cases.”