Attorney-General v Chee Soon Juan

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeLai Siu Chiu J
Judgment Date31 March 2006
Neutral Citation[2006] SGHC 54
Citation[2006] SGHC 54
Plaintiff CounselLee Seiu Kin, Teh Hwee Hwee and Dominic Zou (Attorney-General's Chambers)
Date31 March 2006
Published date05 April 2006
Defendant CounselM Ravi and Violet Netto (M Ravi & Co)
Docket NumberOriginating Summons No 285 of 2006
Subject MatterRespondent reading out statement alleging court's partiality and bias before assistant registrar in bankruptcy hearing and then circulating such statement to media,Whether respondent's conduct amounting to contempt "in the face of the court" by scandalising court in assistant registrar's presence,Appropriate sentence for such contempt of court,Criminal contempt,Contempt of Court,Whether defences of fair comment or justification applicable to acts of contempt

31 March 2006

Lai Siu Chiu J:

Introduction

1 This was an application by the Attorney-General (“the Applicant”) seeking an order of committal against Chee Soon Juan (“the Respondent”) for contempt of court.[note: 1] Another court had on 16 February 2006 granted the Applicant leave under O 52 r 2(1) of the Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2004 Rev Ed) (“the Rules”) to apply for the order of committal.

2 The Applicant alleged that the Respondent was guilty of contempt on two counts: first, that he acted in contempt “in the face of the court” at the hearing of the Bankruptcy Petition No 38 of 2006 against him before Assistant Registrar Low Siew Ling (“AR Low”) on 10 February 2006 (“the bankruptcy hearing”), and second, that he acted in contempt of the court by scandalising the Singapore judiciary through his statement entitled “Statement of Chee Soon Juan submitted to the High Court, Singapore at the Bankruptcy Petition hearing on 10 February 2006” (“the bankruptcy statement”).

3 After the bankruptcy hearing, the Respondent read and distributed the bankruptcy statement to media representatives outside the courtroom and purportedly copied the document to 59 persons and organisations in Singapore and elsewhere. In addition, a slightly amended version of the bankruptcy statement (“the online version”) appeared on a website that was related to the Respondent. The website of the Singapore Democratic Party, of which the Respondent is the secretary-general, provided a hyperlink to the uniform resource locator (or “URL”) of the online version.

4 The bankruptcy statement, inter alia, alleged that the Singapore judiciary was biased and unfair, and that it acted at the instance of the Government or conspired with the Government in cases involving opposition politicians. The Respondent further alleged that he and other opposition politicians had suffered grave injustice because the Singapore judiciary was not independent and had compromised the law in order to gain favour with the Government. In addition, he insinuated that judges were controlled by the Government and were removed from the Bench if they were perceived to be lenient towards opposition politicians.

Issues

5 The following issues were raised in these proceedings:

(a) Was there contempt “in the face of the court” and contempt by “scandalising the court”?

(b) Can the Applicant initiate contempt proceedings or must it be done by the court itself?

(c) Must a contemnor be given prior warning before he can be cited by the court for contempt of court?

(d) Does the offence of scandalising the court violate the right to freedom of speech enshrined in Art 14(1)(a) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (1999 Rev Ed) (“the Constitution”)?

(e) Are the defences of fair comment and justification in the law of defamation applicable to the offence of scandalising the court?

Contempt in the face of the court

6 The Applicant had alleged in the originating summons that the Respondent had committed “contempt in the face of the court” through his actions before AR Low. I shall first address the issue of whether hearings in chambers before an assistant registrar are hearings before a “court” for the purposes of the doctrine of contempt “in the face of the court”. This question can be sub-divided into two separate issues:

(a) whether the doctrine of contempt in the face of the court only applies to hearings in open court as opposed to hearings in chambers; and

(b) whether the office of an assistant registrar, by its nature, precludes an assistant registrar hearing matters from being a “court” within the meaning of “contempt in the face of the court”.

7 It cannot be denied that contemptuous acts committed before an assistant registrar amount to contempt of court which a court can punish even if the acts do not amount to contempt in court. Oswald in his treatise (Oswald’s Contempt of Court (Butterworth & Co, 3rd Ed, 1910) at pp 13–14) rightly observed that acts of contempt committed before judges of the High Court in chambers and masters (who are the equivalent of registrars in our local context), are cognisable and punishable by the court to which the judges or masters are attached. This is based on the established proposition that “those who have duties to discharge in a court of justice are protected by the law, and shielded on their way to the discharge of such duties, while discharging them, and on their return therefrom” (per Bowen LJ in In re Johnson (1887) 20 QBD 68 at 74). Acts of interference with proceedings before a master (or an assistant registrar in our local context) would be punishable by the High Court since these judicial officers are in effect conducting the “business of the Court” and are therefore entitled to the court’s protection (The King v Almon (1765) Wilm 243 at 269; 97 ER 94 at 105; see also Ex parte Wilton (1842) 1 Dowl NS 805 at 807).

8 The question of whether contemptuous acts before an assistant registrar are contemptuous acts “in the face of the court” depends in part on whether proceedings in chambers are necessarily precluded from being proceedings in “court”. There is no question that the phrase “in the face of the court” includes contemptuous acts committed before a judge in open court.

9 Historically, the common law drew a distinction between acts of contempt in the face of the court (contempt in facie curiae) and acts of contempt outside the court (contempt ex facie curiae). The jurisdiction of inferior courts of record to summarily punish contempt without a jury was restricted to punishment of acts of contempt in the face of the court and not outside the court (The Queen v Lefroy (1873) LR 8 QB 134). Conversely, superior courts of record such as the High Court had the jurisdiction to punish for contempt both in facie curiae and ex facie curiae.

10 For the purposes of the doctrine of contempt in facie curiae, no distinction should be drawn for proceedings in chambers and those in open court. The interest in the administration of justice is equally strong in ensuring the expeditious disposal of both categories of hearing. There can be no justification for the argument that proceedings in open court are more “worthy” of protection than those in chambers. As was recognised by the Committee of British Section of the International Commission of Jurists headed by Lord Shawcross in their Report on Contempt of Court (1959) (at p 19), “it is largely fortuitous whether any given cause is determined in chambers or in open court”. This is reflected in O 32 r 14 of the Rules, which confers on the presiding judge the general discretion to hear a matter either in chambers or in open court. A judge in chambers and in open court has the same inherent powers, one of which is the power to punish acts of contempt committed before him.

11 Accordingly, the common law doctrine of “contempt in the face of the court” applies to both proceedings in chambers and in open court; a judge sitting in chambers is therefore also a “court” for the purposes of the doctrine.

12 As an AR’s powers are derived from those of a High Court judge in chambers, his powers are indistinguishable. The similarities between the jurisdiction of an assistant registrar and of a judge in chambers are evident from a reading of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Cap 322, 1999 Rev Ed) (“the SCJA”) and the Rules. Section 62(1) read with s 2 of the SCJA establishes that ARs of the Supreme Court have such powers as are prescribed by the Rules. According to O 32 r 9(1) read with O 1 r 4(1) of the Rules, an assistant registrar has the same powers and jurisdiction as a judge in chambers.

13 Viewed in that light, an assistant registrar performs the same judicial functions as a judge in chambers, and his or her office therefore possesses the same characteristics and is of the same nature as that of a judge in chambers. That being the case, an assistant registrar in chambers has the equivalent stature of being a “court”. Thus, for the purposes of contempt in facie curiae, no conceptual distinction should be drawn between an assistant registrar and a judge in chambers when deciding whether acts of contempt directed at these respective officers are acts “in the face of the court”.

14 Consequently, an assistant registrar hearing matters in chambers is treated as a “court” to which the doctrine of contempt in facie curiae applies. As was rightly observed by Lord Denning MR in Attorney-General v British Broadcasting Corporation [1981] AC 303 at 313:

To my mind, the immunities and protections which are accorded to the recognised courts of the land should be extended to all tribunals or bodies which have equivalent characteristics. After all, if the principles are good for the old, so they should be good for the new. [emphasis added]

15 Mr Ravi representing the Respondent had submitted that his client’s conduct was not tantamount to contempt “in the face of the court” because the assistant registrar did not find the Respondent’s conduct disruptive of proceedings. He relied on extracts from C J Miller’s textbook, Contempt of Court (Oxford University Press, 3rd Ed 2000) at para 4.19 in support. On the contrary, he submitted, the Respondent had, in a respectful and non-disruptive manner at the bankruptcy hearing, read out to AR Low the bankruptcy statement which he had tendered as his submissions.

16 Disruptive behaviour was indeed one example cited in Miller’s textbook of what amounted to contempt “in the face of the court”. Another illustration in Miller’s textbook of contempt “in the face of the court” (at para 4.27) was “insulting or disrespectful behaviour even though it falls short of being physically obstructive” [emphasis added].

17 The notes of evidence recorded by AR Low at the bankruptcy hearing contained the following extracts:

Court: Do you admit the debts?

Respondent: I refuse to answer any questions. I have a statement to make.

After the Respondent had tendered the bankruptcy statement...

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