On 14 March 2014, the Protection from Harassment Bill 2014 (the “Bill”) was passed in Parliament. The Bill was introduced in Parliament on 3 March 2014. The Bill provides a range of self-help measures, civil remedies and criminal sanctions to better protect individuals from harassment and related anti-social behaviour. The Bill also provides that the common law tort of harassment will be abolished, and no civil proceedings will be brought for harassment except under this new legislation.
The Bill will be gazetted as an Act before it becomes effective on a date to be published in the Government Gazette. Set out below are some of the key highlights of the Bill.
Harassment online is an offence
Currently, the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (the “MOA”) makes harassment a criminal offence. However, it is unclear whether the existing law, based on the courts’ interpretation, would apply to harassment online. Under the Bill, it is clear that harassment and related anti-social behaviour are offences, whether committed in the physical world or online. For example, online sexual harassment and cyber-bullying will be an offence. Women who are sexually harassed at the workplace or outside will have a clear remedy.
New offence of unlawful stalking
The Bill also introduces a new offence of unlawful stalking. The Bill criminalises a “course of conduct” related to stalking, and which has the effect of causing harassment, alarm or distress. The “course of conduct” will cover acts which may in themselves be innocuous, but which when done repeatedly, and especially where unwanted, may cause victims harassment, alarm and distress. For example, it is an act associated with stalking if Y repeatedly sends e-mails to Y’s subordinate, X, with suggestive comments about X’s body. This is one of the illustrations in the Bill on what constitutes an act associated with stalking. The Bill does not limit the type of acts or omissions associated with stalking. It provides a list of factors to guide the court in deciding whether a course of conduct is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, for example, frequency and duration of conduct. It is for the court to determine whether the conduct in each case amounts to an offence.
Protection for public service workers
The existing law under the MOA protects only public servants. Under the new law in the Bill, public service workers will also be protected in addition to public servants. A “public service worker” is defined in the Bill as “an individual who belongs to a prescribed class of employees or workers that provides any service which is essential to the well-being of the public or the proper functioning of Singapore”. In his Second Reading Speech on the Bill, Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Law (the “Minister”), gave the examples of public healthcare workers and public transport workers.
More sentencing options, including imprisonment
The Bill will provide the court with a wider range of sentencing options to ensure that the sentence meted out in each case better takes into account the culpability of the offender and the harm caused to the victim. Some offences will now attract an imprisonment term where appropriate, instead of merely a fine under the MOA and there will be enhanced penalties for repeat offenders which is currently not available under the MOA. The court will be empowered to make Community Orders which is a new feature under the Bill.
Victim may sue for damages
Apart from criminal sanctions, a victim can sue and claim damages against the perpetrator under the Bill. However, damages will not be recoverable in the case of a victim who suffered harm in his capacity as a public servant or public service worker.
Victim may apply for protection order
The victim of harassment under the Bill may apply for a protection order. The District Court may order, amongst other things, that no person is to publish or continue to publish the offending communication and such order is not effective until it has been served, or service has been dispensed with, or if a later effective date is specified. The victim or any person to whom the protection order applies may apply to vary, suspend, cancel or extend it. The District Court will also be empowered to make an expedited protection order. An expedited protection order can be granted where the offending conduct is likely to have a “substantial adverse effect on the victim or the victim’s day-to-day activities”. A breach of the protection order or expedited protection order is an offence under the Bill.
Victim of false statement of facts
The Bill provides that the victim of a published false statement of fact may apply to court for an order for the publication of a notification which brings attention to the falsehood and the true facts. It will be up to the court to decide when it would be just and equitable for a court order to be made, and in what form that order should be made. The Minister explained in the Second Reading Speech that such an order is not intended to apply to mere conduits such as Network Service Providers, or search engines but also to content providers which have some degree of control over the content published on their website. He also said that the purpose of this remedy is to provide an option to victims who will feel satisfied as long as there is some redress, without having to claim damages, because their feelings of alarm or distress would be settled as long as the truth is set out. There will be no claim for damages or criminal sanctions.
It bears noting that offences under the Bill will apply to acts committed outside Singapore, under certain conditions, to address the ease with which acts of harassment may be pursued using electronic means, transcending territorial borders, for example, by mobile phone or over the Internet. If the offender knew or had reason to believe that the victim would be in Singapore at the time the acts were committed, the court will have jurisdiction over the matter. Under the Bill, offenders ordinarily outside Singapore cannot escape liability simply because the acts of harassment were committed overseas, as long as the harm is caused to the victim in Singapore. Offenders in Singapore who commit acts of harassment against victims who are outside of Singapore will also not be able to escape liability under the Bill.
Prior to the introduction of the Bill, the Ministry of Law (the “MinLaw”) and the Ministry of Home Affairs consulted extensively with stakeholders such as AWARE, the Singapore Children’s Society, the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth, and lawyers who have represented victims of harassment. Some of these proposals were discussed at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies in November 2013.
Since harassment may occur in the workplace, as exemplified in some of the illustrations under the Bill, organisations and businesses may play an important role in educating their employees to identify or prevent harassment. It may also be timely to review internal policies to handle employee grievances which may fall under the new law.
The following materials are available for further reading: