Weird cases: Kangaroo court

Gary Slapper
Times Online

Three men in Singapore are jailed for contempt of court after protesting a libel ruling

Three men in Singapore have been jailed for contempt of court for wearing T-shirts picturing a kangaroo dressed as a judge.

A “kangaroo court” is an unfair tribunal that disregards proper procedure. (The term originated in the 1849 Californian gold rush, to which many Australians had travelled). The three men involved in the T-shirt protest were prosecuted for a form of contempt known as “scandalising the judiciary” on the grounds that it was the worst insult that could be levelled at the judicial system.

The men are members of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which had been found liable for defaming the Prime Minister and a government minister. It was at a hearing to determine damages in that case that the men staged their T-shirt protest.

At their subsequent contempt trial, they were given an opportunity to apologise for their insinuation and to withdraw it but they declined to do so. They told the court that the T-shirt they wore to the defamation hearing was fair criticism. One of the defendants told the judge the meaning of the T-shirt was to express a hope that the quality of justice would be improved. He said, politely, that by wearing the shirt he had hoped to identify “weaknesses in the system”.

The court disagreed. One defendant, a senior officer of the SDP, was given a 15-day jail sentence and the others got seven days; each man was also ordered to pay $5,000 to the prosecutor’s office.

Across the world, all sorts of conduct has been punished under the law against scandalising a court or contempt “in the face of the court”. Convicts have included people who have sung songs at the judge, distributed leaflets in court, wolf-whistled at a juror, shouted insults and one person who gradually stripped off to lie naked on a courtroom bench.

The person, though, who should have been least surprised to have spent time in jail for scandalising the court was the editor of the Oriental Daily News in Hong Kong in 1999. His paper published articles that severely criticised the integrity of several judges but, resentful of the bench, he went a step further, staging a three-day campaign in which he commissioned a horde of photographers to hound and monitor the daily activity of a Court of Appeal judge in order to “teach him a lesson”. The Court of Appeal responded by reversing the educational process: it sentenced the editor to 120 days in jail.

Professor Gary Slapper is Director of the Centre for Law at the Open University

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