What amendments to harassment law mean for victims
Revisions aim to make applying and obtaining POHA orders more straightforward.
In February, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam announced transformative amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) to make it easier for victims of intimate partner violence to be protected by the law.
If implemented well, the changes will boost protection for victims of harassment.
Let me explain how this can be done based on my experience in Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) working with such victims.
WHAT IS POHA?
Enacted in 2014, POHA criminalises, among other things, harassment, stalking and bullying in the physical and online world.
Three court orders fall under POHA: A Protection Order (PO) for a perpetrator to cease stalking/harassing and remove any distressing publications.
An Expedited Protection Order (EPO), which has the same powers as a PO, is granted for interim protection in urgent cases until the PO hearing commences.
Third, a Non-Publication Order (NPO) for a perpetrator to stop publishing offensive statements, or make clear that the statements are false when publishing.
In reality, not all victims of harassment file for such orders.
Lina (not her real name), a SACC client, lived in fear for more than a year after leaving her abusive boyfriend.
He frequently turned up at her parents’ home and her workplace to insult her, at times becoming violent. She did not file for a PO due to the tedious process.
“I’m still struggling to rebuild my life, then I need to go through another process,” Lina told SACC. “So much paperwork, and maybe I need a lawyer to get it. I [would] need to take leave and go down to the court so many times… It was too much for me.”
Her concerns about POHA processes are echoed by many.
At present, applying for an order under POHA is complicated and costly.
Typically, applicants need a lawyer to assist in the preparation and submission of documents and subsequent proceedings, and this can be financially prohibitive.
It typically costs between S$5,000 and 8,000 leading up to mediation and significantly higher if mediation fails and the matter goes to court.
Victims of violence and harassment often experience shame, heightened fear, a loss of income or accommodation, and a loss of their sense of self. Given how overwhelming this can be, the legal systems established to protect these individuals should be easy to navigate.
The revisions announced by Mr Shanmugam aim to make applying and obtaining POHA orders more straightforward.
The current infrastructure for legal remedies against family violence, under the Women’s Charter, are significantly more accessible.
Similar provisions (such as online applications, video-conferencing facilities and assistance from social workers at dedicated community-based specialist centres) should be made available for those applying for POHA orders.
Further, applicants should feel confident in applying for a POHA order without a lawyer.
Perhaps, then, the Women’s Charter could be a good model for POHA.
Another issue that victims face is this: currently, breaches of a PO or NPO are generally non-arrestable offences. The perceived lack of severity and penalties for breaches likely deters individuals from applying for them.
The more common alternative is to invoke the criminal process. This typically requires the victim to go to a police station, only to be directed to apply for a Magistrate’s Complaint for a court order directing the police to act.
The police investigation can take many months, and is aimed at punishing wrongdoers rather than protecting the victim.
Tina (not her real name), who received unwanted messages for a period of several months and was stalked by a family friend, was one of those who decided not to lodge a police report nor apply for a PO.
“If something happens to me, then how?” she told SACC.
“Even if I have the paper and he does something to me, I still need to go down to the court again for the police to do something. I didn’t want any of this...but it really feels like I am being punished.”
It is therefore heartening to know that the proposed changes to POHA include making the breach of a PO an arrestable offence so that the police can immediately step in.
Recurrent breaches will now lead to higher penalties. This increased gravity of offences for breaches will deter continued violence and hopefully contribute to more timely and effective protection for survivors.
OTHER IMPROVEMENTS TO POHA
The proposed formation of a Protection from Harassment Court within the State Court is innovative and welcome. This court will exclusively hear POHA-related matters, both civil and criminal.
A single court can greatly increase access to justice for victims and reduce waiting time.
Hopefully civil and criminal remedies can both be applied for in one application and processed through a single hearing process.
A long-overdue change to POHA is its extension to cover intimate partners. Intimate partners are people who share regular contact (physical or sexual), emotional connection or familiarity in each other’s lives.
Extending protections such as the EPO -- granted within 48 to 72 hours of application and remaining during the hearing -- to intimate partners recognises that the impact of ongoing violence is the same, whether or not the victim is married to the perpetrator, and that these individuals need immediate protection.
It’s also encouraging that these protections cover same-sex partners, as Minister K. Shanmugam recently reiterated .
Lastly, extending POs to family members of the victims recognises the wide impact of violence. Perpetrators often use family and friends of the survivor as leverage, and fear of a loved one being harmed keeps survivors stuck.
Lina’s boyfriend, for example, would sometimes go to her parents’ house after their arguments. He would break things, shout at her parents and blame them for Lina’s “poor upbringing”.
He continued to harass her parents and her even after she left him. Legal protection for family members will help to alleviate the secondary trauma they experience from living in fear of a perpetrator’s actions and increase feelings of safety.
The minister’s announcements are worth cheering, but continued momentum in the practical implementation of the changes will matter most. That is what all victims, and those around them, are looking for.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laika Jumabhoy is a senior case manager at the Sexual Assault Care Centre, Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
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