`The judiciary has always given the noble impression that it has acted with impartiality. But there were times when the public could not be blamed when it doubted its independence when PAP leaders, especially the former MM Lee Kuan Yew, were involved in defamatory litigations. But it could be said that it was a matter of perception by some members of the public and may not really reflect the intrinsic quality of the judiciary.
Be that as it may, the recent judicial decision of an appeal court presided by Justice Choo Han Teck has caused considerable apprehension to the public. Justice Choo was hearing the appeal of the hit and run killer driver Ms Lim Hong Eng who is the Executive Editor of the Shin Ming Daily News. Ms Lim had been sentenced to a jail term of 1 1/2 years by a lower court for negligently driving while using her hand phone and subsequently running a red light and striking a motorcyclist and his passenger. The passenger died while the motorcyclist suffered serious injuries.
Justice Choo decided to uphold the lower court's conviction but reduce the sentence. Ms Lim's lawyer Mr Subhas Anandan suggested a "high fine" instead of jail term. Justice Choo apparently agreed and changed the sentence to one day's jail and a fine totalling $12,000 over the two charges. It was only discovered later by Mr Anandan and the prosecutor that on the second charge of which a $10,000 fine had been levied, the statute in the particular law had no provision for a fine but only provision for a jail term.
Justice Choo had no choice but to remove the $10,000 fine. However, he did not substitute that with any added jail time claiming that "in the circumstances it will not be right to increase the custodial sentence to the detriment of the accused". And he added that this was a one-off case not to be used as a sentencing precedent. The end result is that Ms Lim was jailed for one day and fined $2000, an absurdly light sentence for taking the life of someone through negligent driving.
Is this what one would call a fair administration of justice? A one day jail and $2000 fine for causing the death of a person through using a hand phone and running a red light. To put it mildly, the public would be abhorred by the light sentence for such a serious offence. What was most puzzling was that the prosecution appeared not to have put up any opposition to the light sentence. Why did he not point out to the judge that a fine was inappropriate for this statute?
How could this be a one-off case is hard to comprehend. There is nothing to prevent aspiring lawyers to quote this as a precendent in the defence of their clients in similiar cases. This has unwittingly opened a Pandora's box and has not convinced the public of the imprtiality of the judiciary.