19 Sep 2007 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.
Sir, I would describe this Bill as a law reform Bill. It has two main purposes. First, to update the existing legislation on Commissions of Inquiry and secondly, to enable Committees of Inquiry to be established where necessary. The Bill repeals the present Commissions of Inquiry Act and replaces it with a new Act covering both Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the President and Committees of Inquiry appointed by a Minister.
At present, a Commission of Inquiry may be appointed by the President under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, for example, to inquire into any matter in which an inquiry would be for the public welfare. Since Independence, 7 Commissions of Inquiry have been constituted. The existing Commissions of Inquiry Act is essentially based on the original framework created in 1941. It is therefore in need of updating, in light of more recent legislative developments in other Commonwealth countries.
The new Act therefore introduces a modern framework for Commissions of Inquiry. For example, it allows the appointment of assessors to assist the commissioners. It expressly states that a Commission is not to determine a person’s criminal or civil liability, allowing the Commission to concentrate on fact finding, thus overcoming the reluctance of witnesses to testify. It also creates offences for certain acts such as the distortion of evidence or documents given to the Commission or the suppression of documents. The amendments also protect the assessors or counsel appearing on behalf of the parties from civil suit, and provide that commission reports are privileged under the law of defamation.
The new Act also introduces provisions for the appointment of Committees of Inquiry, for which the modern framework similarly will apply. Sir, there can be certain accidents or incidents that may require an investigation or inquiry but may not warrant a Commission of Inquiry. For situations that do not raise major issues of public policy, it may be more appropriate for the relevant Minister to convene a Committee of Inquiry to investigate. At present, some of our laws, such as the Workplace Safety and Health Act 2006, have provisions empowering the relevant Minister or another official to initiate inquires into matters falling under those Acts. However, not all Acts have such provisions and not all Ministries have legislative provisions for setting up inquiries. The new Act will therefore enable Ministers to convene a Committee of Inquiry in various situations; for example, wherever there is an occurrence that may endanger public safety or public health. In cases where existing legislation already empower the relevant Minister or another official to initiate inquires into certain matters, the relevant Minister may decide whether to initiate an inquiry pursuant to the specific provisions of that particular existing Act, or to proceed under this new Act.
Where a matter involves major issues of public policy, multi-agency issues or issues of grave public concern, such as the Hotel New World collapse or the Sentosa cable car incident in the past, a Commission of Inquiry will continue to be appointed.
Key Provisions of the Bill
- I will now touch on the key provisions of this bill.
- Part II of the Bill deals with Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the President and Part III of the Bill deals with Committees of Inquiry appointed by any Minister. Part IV of the Bill and the First Schedule set out certain provisions which will be common to both the Commissions and Committees.
- Part II of the Bill sets out the updated provisions for Commissions of Inquiry. Although clause 3(1) largely reproduces the grounds for convening a Commission of Inquiry currently found in section 2 of the present Commissions of Inquiry Act, clause 3(1)(c) adds a new ground “or in the public interest”. This is for the avoidance of any doubt, as it can be said that the term “public welfare” could be interpreted narrowly. There may be situations where the convening of a Commission of Inquiry is clearly in the public interest, but it may not strictly speaking be for public welfare. Clause 3(2) now expressly provides that the commission issued by the President may direct whether the commissioners are to make recommendations and how the inquiry is to be conducted; and Clause 3(3) allows the President to modify the terms of reference on the recommendation of the commissioners. Clause 7 empowers the President to appoint assessors, before the appointment of the chairman of the Commission. Once the chairman has been appointed, the power to appoint assessors will rest with the chairman.
- Part III of the Bill deals with a Committee of Inquiry which can be appointed by a Minister to inquire into any accident or occurrence resulting in or involving death, serious personal injury or serious property damage; any occurrence that may endanger public safety or public health; the conduct or management of a Ministry, department or statutory board falling under the responsibility of that Minister; or the conduct of any officer employed by or seconded to any such Ministry, department or statutory board. These four grounds are narrower than the grounds for the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry. At least one of the members of the Committee must be qualified to be a District Judge.
- The powers of both Commissions of Inquiry and Committees of Inquiry, referred to in the Bill as “inquiry bodies”, are set out in the First Schedule. It is made clear that an inquiry body shall not rule on and has no power to determine the civil or criminal liability of any person. However, an inquiry body is not to be inhibited in the discharge of its functions by any likelihood of liability being inferred from facts that it determines or recommendations that it makes. The reason for this provision is that the primary role of an inquiry body is to investigate the facts and help prevent recurrence, for example of the accident it may be inquiring into. It is not to determine guilt or legal liability of any party. To that end, an inquiry body is empowered to admit evidence that may be inadmissible in a criminal or civil trial. Because of this flexibility accorded to an inquiry body as compared to a Court of law, it would not be appropriate for such a body to be allowed to determine a person’s legal liability. But this does not mean that an inquiry body cannot make a finding, as a matter of fact, that a person’s carelessness or negligence, in terms of action or omission, caused a particular outcome. Such a finding can be distinguished from the power to decide as a matter of law that there was negligence at common law or within the meaning of any statute.
- The First Schedule provides that inquiry bodies have the power to procure and receive evidence, to examine persons on oath, to summon persons to give evidence and to issue warrants of arrest to compel attendance of witnesses. Evidence may be admitted which may be inadmissible in civil or criminal proceedings. These powers are similar to the powers enjoyed by Commissions of Inquiry under the current Commissions of Inquiry Act.
- Paragraph 2 of the First Schedule allows the Chairman of an inquiry body to suspend an inquiry but with the consent of the appointing authority i.e. the President or the Minister, as the case may be, to allow the completion of any other investigation or the determination of any civil or criminal proceedings.
- Paragraph 5 of the First Schedule expressly creates offences for the giving of false evidence, the distortion or altering of evidence, the intentional suppression or concealment of documents, and the intentional alteration or destruction of documents. The punishment on conviction is either a fine not exceeding $10,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years or both. This same punishment is prescribed in paragraph 6 of the First Schedule for any person who, for example, hinders a witness from giving evidence before an inquiry body or deters any person from giving such evidence by threats or coercion. Paragraph 7 of the First Schedule criminalizes acts of contempt eg wilfully interrupting the proceedings of an inquiry body or refusing to take the oath. The penalty is either a fine not exceeding $10,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 2 years or both. Paragraph 8 of the Schedule allows the commissioners of a Commission of Inquiry to sentence an offender for an act of contempt committed in the presence of the commissioners sitting in the Commission. This power is not given to members of a Committee of Inquiry as the Committee of Inquiry is a body of a “lower level” than a Commission of Inquiry.
- Paragraph 12 of the First Schedule provides protection and immunities to the members of the inquiry bodies, witnesses, assessors and advocates appearing on behalf of witnesses. Paragraph 10 provides that any person, whose conduct is the subject of inquiry or is in any way implicated or concerned in the matter under inquiry, shall be entitled to be represented by an advocate and solicitor at the whole of the inquiry.
- As provided for in the First Schedule, any statement made before the inquiry body and reports of the inquiry are privileged for the purposes of the law of defamation.
- Paragraph 15 of the First Schedule expressly requires an inquiry body to deliver a report to the appointing authority setting out the facts determined by the inquiry body and the recommendations of the inquiry body. The report must be signed by each member of the inquiry body. The report must reflect points of disagreement if the inquiry body is unable to produce a unanimous report.
- As I said, Sir, this legislation can be regarded as a law reform Bill to update and modernise our laws concerning the Commissions of Inquiry.
- Sir, I beg to move.
Last updated on 26 Nov 2012