The Straits Times reported (Straits Times, 21 April 2010, SDP group fined for illegal procession) that five persons affiliated to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) were fined $500 to $600 each by District Judge John Ng for holding an illegal procession.
This came after the prosecution had succeeded in its appeal against the acquittal that the same judge gave them back in October last year. Yawning Bread wrote about it More thoughts on the ‘Not a procession’ judgement.
The High Court (Justice Choo Han Teck) granted the appeal and sent the case back to the District Court for sentencing.
I have had a quick look at Choo’s written judgement. Whereas the District Judge had relied on a dictionary definition of procession, saying judicial precedents were unclear on this matter, Choo rejected a dictionary definition even while accepting that precedents were unclear. He seemed to have offered no definition of his own.
Instead he appeared to rely on “whether the organisers and participants intended to attract public attention, not whether they had succeeded or not. Rule 5 being preemptive leaves the assessment of risks to the permit issuer,” and therefore the five men should have obtained a permit in advance of the event, even if in the end, the walk neither attracted public attention nor posed any threat to public order.
He gave an example that on the surface seemed reasonable: Referring to how the participants did not walk in any fixed or structured way, but quite often separately, obeying traffic lights, etc, findings of fact made by the District Court, Choo wrote: “that did not make the activity less of a procession because it could have taken the front walkers a moment to slow down and the back formation to speed up to have the groups coalesce into one.”
Yet, such reasoning hinges acutely on the “it could have” even if it didn’t. Applying law so broadly, based on all manner of possibilities, is highly prejudicial to civil liberties.
For example, let’s say three persons walked together singing a merry song. Being three, under the law’s threshold of five persons, they would not need a permit to hold a “procession”. But using the same reasoning as Choo, one could argue that more passers-by, attracted by their good cheer and hearty voices “could have” possibly joined in, making a number larger than five, and therefore the original three were guilty of not applying for a permit in the first place – even if nobody joined in.
It’s rather disturbing.
I shall read the 11-page judgement more fully when I have time, and if I have more points to add, I shall write a longer piece.