Here’s why Minister Shanmugam is right that the City Harvest case is not over yet
Here's how either side can 'appeal' the High Court's verdict and reduced sentence.
Perhaps this hasn’t been made clear, but it looks like the criminal case involving Kong Hee and the City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders might not be over just yet.
At a doorstop interview on Saturday afternoon (April 8), Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) will be looking into the latest High Court judgement, which saw the sentences of the six criminals reduced, much to the shock and dismay of the general public.
To understand what can happen next, we need to refer to the structure and hierarchy of Singapore’s judiciary.
Here is a graphic depicting the general hierarchy of the Singapore judiciary:
The CHC case began in the State Courts, where the criminal case trial concluded with the initial convictions and sentences meted out.
Following that, the appeal that saw the criminals’ sentences reduced took place in the High Court.
Now, there is the highest court in the land above the High Court known as the Court of Appeal. It makes the final judgement on all cases that moves up to it in Singapore.
The next move that either the AGC or the Kongvicts can do after the latest verdict is to take their case up with the Court of Appeal.
A question of law that is of public interest
In order for a case to be filed with the Court of Appeal successfully, there has to be a question of law that is of public interest.
Put simply, that means there has to be a point in how the law was interpreted in the judgement that needs to be clarified, which has important implications for the public. This is chiefly necessary because people need to know how not to break the law.
Singapore uses the common law system, in which cases are decided based on how the law is interpreted and applied in the judgements delivered in preceding cases.
When there is no precedence, the judge has to interpret and apply the law and set a precedence with his/her judgement. The interpretation of the law can be fine-tuned as a case moves up the judicial hierarchy until the Court of Appeal makes the final decision.
This was also a point that was made by Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan in a piece published in The Sunday Times.
He said that the AGC could go to the Court of Appeal “to clarify section 409 once and for all”.
So, what does this mean for the CHC case?
As we pointed out on Friday, the three-judge panel that heard the CHC appeal in the High Court was not unanimous in their decision to reduce the criminals’ sentences.
Justice Chan Seng Onn disagreed with Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice Woo Bih Li on the matter of section 409 of the Penal Code.
The judges differed particularly on who qualifies as an “agent” under aggravated criminal breach of trust (section 409).
It looks like this is a novel point of law in Singapore that can possibly qualify as being in the public interest, and it is possible this is also the point that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC are essentially the government’s lawyers) is considering taking up with the Court of Appeal.
Should the CHC case reach the Court of Appeal, the Court’s judgement will clarify this point of law once and for all.
It could also re-sentence the CHC Kongvicts if it holds a different view to the High Court’s majority judgement.
How will the government and the AGC proceed?
There is still time for the AGC to pore over the 304-page judgement, as both parties (the AGC and counsel for the six convicts) have 30 days from Friday to take their cases to the Court of Appeal.
And the government?
Law Minister K Shanmugam has revealed a bit about how the government intends to proceed with the CHC case. In his remarks, he “aggregated” the judgement of the dissenting High Court judge and the lower court judge on one side:
“The High Court has disagreed (the High Court in this case sitting with three judges) but if you look at it in terms of judges, including the lower court judge, two judges thought either the sentences should be as they are, or higher. Two judges felt that it should be lower, and a key reason for the majority judgement was to consider directors to be not agents. So they took the existing important charge and replaced it with a lower charge, and that resulted in a lower sentence.”
Moreover, Shanmugam had hinted a “nuclear” option if all goes belly up.
“The reasoning is that they [the Judges] set it out, we agree [or] disagree and from the government’s point of view, if we disagree, then we always consider what we do. If necessary, we legislate through Parliament.”
In case you forget, there are 83 People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs in the 101-parliament seat that can improve the clarity of section 409 of the Penal Code, including a certain MP named Edwin Tong.
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Top image by Wee Jia Hui