Sexual harassment is defined as the making of unwanted sexual advances and can take many forms, including but not limited to, physical or verbal bullying, sexual coercion or the inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours.
The Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) of 2014 was enacted to provide a variety of criminal and civil remedies against such acts. Its purpose is to protect people from harassment, stalking, cyberbullying, and other anti-social and undesirable behaviours.
The legislation was recently amended to strengthen the existing penalties for harassment. In response to sexual harassment, it introduced new offences such as unlawful stalking and provided a range of self-help measures, civil remedies, and criminal sanctions. POHA has been a critical legislative tool in protecting harassment victims by providing them with effective redress. According to a press release from the Ministry of Law, more than 1700 prosecutions and over 3000 Magistrate’s Complaints have been filed under the Act.
It is critical to distinguish harassment from mutual flirting or consensual romantic relationships. It encompasses a wide range of behaviour and is not limited to physical conduct. Surprisingly, the term “sexual harassment” is not legally defined. The POHA will, however, prosecute a few standard offences. Here are the various types of offences covered by POHA
This includes verbal abuse and lewd remarks, intentionally causing harassment, alarm, or distress through threatening, abusive, or insulting words, behaviour, or communication, according to Sections 3 and 4 of the POHA. The POHA also provides examples to demonstrate this.
The maximum penalty for intentionally causing harassment, alarm, or distress is a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a 6-month prison sentence. For repeat offenders, the maximum penalties are doubled.
Even if the accused had no intention of harassing, alarming, or distressing the victim, he or she can still be prosecuted under Section 4 of the POHA. For example, if X makes comments about Y on a widely accessible social media platform that causes Y distress, X will be found guilty even if he/she had no intention of distressing Y.
Such an offence will attract a fine of up to $5000. Repeat offenders may expect enhanced penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and/or an imprisonment term of up to 6 months.
Causing fear or provocation of violence
This offence is distinct from the threat of physical violence because harassment, alarm, or distress are examples of non-physical harm. It is a crime to intentionally lead someone to believe or act in a way that leads them to believe that unlawful violence will be used against them.
For example, if X makes threatening and abusive remarks on a publicly accessible website, followed by a post containing Y’s identity information and threats to physically attack Y, then X has committed a crime by threatening physical violence.
The maximum penalties for instilling fear or inciting violence are a $5,000 fine and/or a 12-month prison sentence. For repeat offenders, the maximum penalties will be doubled.
Section 7 of the POHA makes unlawful stalking a crime. It includes stalking-related acts or omissions that cause the victim to feel harassed, alarmed, or distressed. The court will consider whether the accused person:
a) intended to harass, cause alarm, or distress the victim; or
b) had known, or ought reasonably to know that his/her conduct was likely to harass, alarm, or distress the victim.
Some examples of stalking include:
- Following the victim or a related person;
- Making, or attempting to make communication with the victim, relating to the victim, or purporting to originate from the victim;
- Entering or loitering in any place (whether public or private) outside or near the victim’s residence or place of business or any other place frequented by the victim;
- Interfering with property in the possession of the victim;
- Giving or sending material to the victim, or leaving it where it will be found by, given to or brought ot the attention of the victim; and
- Keeping the victim under surveillance
These are some examples to illustrate what constitutes unlawful stalking pursuant to the POHA provisions.
- Y repeatedly sends emails to Y’s subordinate (X) with suggestive comments about X’s body;
- Y sending flowers to X daily even after X has asked Y to stop doing so
- Y repeatedly circulates revealing photographs of a classmate (X) to other classmates
Perpetrators may be subject to a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment of up to 12 months or both, with maximum penalties doubled for repeat offenders.
Doxxing is to publish a person’s personal information with the intent of harassing, threatening, or facilitating violence against them. This law is aimed to enhance victims’ protection against undesirable online behaviour. Sharing one’s personal information on social media and asking others to “teach them a lesson” is an example of doxxing.
Publishing any information revealing the identity of the target person or their relations is considered harassment under sections 3 and 4 of the POHA. An intention to harass may be found on the facts if this is done in the hope of shaming or distressing the victim.
Publishing someone’s personal information with the intent to harass may result in a fine of up to $5000 and/or a 6-month prison sentence. Repeat offenders face double the maximum penalties.
If the post was intended to cause or facilitate violence or physical harm, the maximum penalties are a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both.
The number of charges filed against perpetrators who deliberately and wilfully invade the victim’s privacy has increased in recent years. For example, the highly publicized Monica Baey case, in which a man secretly filmed a woman showering, made headlines and brought to light a common problem afflicting women in Singapore.
Previously, voyeurism could only be prosecuted under Penal Code Section 509 for insulting a woman’s modesty. However this time, Singapore’s Penal Code has been amended to include Section 377BB in order to broaden the scope of the law. The following acts are now classified as voyeurism under this section:
- Intentionally observing the victim doing a private act, knowing and believing that the victim does not consent to being observed. This includes the classic “peeping Tom” act.
- Operating equipment, such as binoculars, to enable one to observe the victim doing a private act. An example would be watching the victim change clothes without his/her consent and regardless of whether the private act was recorded.
- Operating equipment, such as mobile phones, to enable one to observe the victim’s private parts without the victim’s consent and with the knowledge or belief that the victim does not consent to it. This includes using a mobile phone to look under victims’ skirts in public.
- Recording an image of the victim’s private parts without the victim’s consent and with the knowledge or belief that the victim does not consent to it. This includes taking underskirt pictures or videos of victims in public.
- Installing equipment such as a camera in the victim’s bedroom or in other private areas to enable one to commit any of the aforementioned acts.
If found guilty of voyeurism, one can expect a prison sentence of up to two years, as well as a fine or caning (or any combination of these). Minors under the age of 14 will be imprisoned for up to two years and fined or caned. Alternatively, they could be placed on probation. The defendant’s age is also an important factor in determining the sentence.
When sexual harassment takes the more egregious form of molest or rape, the Penal Code prescribes harsher penalties for the offender. Section 354 of the Penal Code defines what constitutes an outrage of modesty, and Sections 375 and 376 define what constitutes rape. These sections provide protection for both men and women.
The civil actions and orders relating to the above contraventions are as follows: Both individuals and entities can be held liable for harassment-related offenses.
- Protection Orders
A protection order (“PO”) can prohibit the wrongdoer from continuing his or her wrongful order or from publishing specific communications. Counselling or mediation may also be recommended for the parties involved. Notably, POs and EPOs can be granted to people who are related to the victims as well as the victims themselves.
When a harasser is reasonably suspected of failing to comply with a PO or EPO, the police may arrest him or her without a warrant. Under the POHA, a victim may apply to the court for a PO against the perpetrator for the following offenses.
- Intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress under Section 3 of the POHA;
- Harassment, alarm or distress under Section 4 of the POHA;
- Fear or provocation of violence under Section 5 of the POHA
- Threatening, abusing or insulting public servant or public service worker under Section 6 of the POHA; and
- Unlawful stalking under Section 7 of the POHA
A Protection Order is a flexible remedy and the period of protection will vary according to the factual matrix of the victim. This will be influenced by the court’s discretion. The following are the factors the court will look at to grant a PO:
- The nature and severity of the harassment
- The perpetrator’s motive and purpose
- How much emotional and psychological harm did the victim suffer?
- To what extent is the harassment known to the public?
- Whether the victim could have avoided the harassment
- Whether the perpetrator genuinely tried to ensure that the victim would not misconstrue or misunderstand his/her actions and
- Whether the harassment could be expected to be tolerated by reasonable people.
In urgent cases, one may also be able to get an Expedited Protection Order.
- Expedited Protection Orders (EPOs)
This is a temporary order that will be in effect for 28 days from the date it was served on the respondent. It is usually granted based on the severity of the victim’s situation.
If a Protection Order or Expedited Protection Order is violated, the perpetrator will be charged with an additional offense under the POHA. In this case, victims can file a police report against the harassers. The harasser faces a maximum fine of $5000 and/or a prison sentence of up to 6 months if convicted.
- Obtaining compensation for criminal offences
A convicted offender can be ordered by the court to pay monetary compensation to the person injured under Section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code. However, compensation orders under the CPC have rarely been given for molest offences.
Parliament has seen fit to provide the victim with a civil cause of action for statutory torts for the offences of harassment, threats, and stalking under the POHA.
- Enhanced penalties
Enhanced penalties may be imposed on accused persons who have an intimate relationship with the victim and are involved in a case involving vulnerable people. The maximum penalties for crimes against vulnerable people, particularly those with mental and physical disabilities, have been doubled, regardless of age.
An individual or entity, for example, who commits the offence of causing fear or provocation of violence against a vulnerable person can be fined up to $10,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 24 months.
In cases where the offender and victim have an intimate relationship, the court will decide whether or not both parties are in an intimate relationship based on the facts and circumstances.
The court will consider the following:
- Whether or not both parties are living in the same household
- Whether they share the tasks and duties of their daily lives
- Remedies for victims of falsehoods
Stop Publication Orders
Under the recently amended POHA provisions, victims of falsehoods will be able to obtain remedies against falsehoods instead of just individuals.The court has the authority to issue a “Stop Publication Order” (“SPO”), which prohibits further publication of false statements. An SPO effectively requires offenders to stop publishing false statements by a specific deadline. This is in accordance with Section 15A of the POHA.
Additionally, an Interim Stop Publication Order (“IPSO”) may be granted under Section 16A of the POHA to expedite the issuance of a stop publication order. This is a temporary order that will only be in effect until it expires or is revoked by the court.
General and targeted correction order
General and targeted correction order requires the offender to publish a correction notice within a specified time, in a specified form. This requires the offender to publish a correction notice within a specified time, in a specified form.
This order requires an internet intermediary to block users’ access to content that allegedly spreads falsehoods. If the court believes it is necessary to expedite the issuance of such an order, an interim disabling order to the same effect may be issued while the disabling order is being sought.
The Protection from Harassment Courts
The recently amended POHA has resulted in the establishment of Protection from Harassment Courts in Singapore for harassment victims. These courts may hear both criminal and civil cases, with filing procedures and case timelines expected to be simplified.
Victims will be able to file more straightforward claims instead of an Originating Summons for claims of up to $20,000 in damages and applications for Protection Orders. Most applications for Protection Orders (POs) and Expedited Protection Orders (EPOs) will be heard by the Court within 4 weeks and 48-72 hours, respectively. This could be completed in 24 hours for more urgent cases.
Is it possible for overseas offenders to be prosecuted under the POHA?
It is possible to prosecute POHA offenders who are overseas if at the time of the offence,
- The victim was in Singapore, and
- The offender knew or had reason to believe that the victim was in Singapore.
For instance, where an overseas offender circulates revealing photographs of a victim (who is in Singapore) knowing that the victim studies in Singapore, may be charged and convicted of unlawful stalking in Singapore.
Engaging a Lawyer
If you are currently in a situation that requires mediation or legal advice, it’s best to consult a lawyer who will be able to guide you through your options.
Mr. Amarjit Singh Sidhu of Amarjit Sidhu Law Corporation has represented numerous clients in a wide variety of matters over the years, from traffic offences and high-profile criminal cases to family and divorce matters. With a vast knowledge of Singapore’s laws and a wealth of experience, Mr. Amarjit Singh Sidhu will be able to provide valuable and timely advice for your situation. For more information, feel free to contact us for a consultation.