High Court sets out sentencing framework to clarify and guide maid abuse cases

A man found guilty of maid abuse saw his appeal against his conviction thrown out, and had his sentence raised by 15 months. This development comes as the High Court sets out a new sentencing framework for cases involving maid abuse.

Both husband and wife were sentenced to 28 months and 2 months imprisonment respectively, last March. The sentence was passed by a district court, for abusing their Indonesian domestic helper for a period of two years. The defendants filed an appeal against their conviction, while the prosecution appealed for higher sentences for the couple.

On Friday (March 2), a panel of three judges — comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang and Justice See Kee Oon — found the husband’s original sentence “manifestly inadequate” and upped his jail term to 43 months. His wife sentence still stands at two months.

During the 14-day trial earlier, the district court heard that the couple, who have three children, subjected the victim to constant physical and emotional abuse when she worked for them from December 2010 to December 2012.

Tay, a former regional IT manager, accused the victim of breaking a religious statue, which the couple’s daughter had knocked off a cabinet. As punishment, he forced the helper to stand on a stool for half an hour on one leg while holding another stool over her head. He also stuffed an incense bottle in her mouth.

On two other occasions, he accused the victim of stealing his medicine and not reporting his daughter’s refusal to study. He then hit her head with a bamboo stick, and also with a bundle of three canes on a separate occasion. Chia also slapped and punched the domestic helper on the forehead.

Tay made the victim and their other Burmese domestic helper kneel and get up in front of a Buddhist altar 100 times, then slap each other 10 times. He also made them assume a push-up position and kicked the victim at her waist.

Additionally, he tried to bribe the victim by offering to pay her full salary and send her back to Indonesia, in exchange for not reporting his offences to the police. He also instructed her to lie to the police by saying he did not abuse the Burmese domestic helper.

Delivering the decision on Friday, Justice See noted that psychological abuse along with physical harm characterises “egregious” instances of maid abuse, with domestic helpers being particularly vulnerable due to their circumstances. The court also takes into critical consideration “the emotional trauma resulting from psychological abuse”.

Justice See also added that “The psychological harm and mental anguish they can suffer from being trapped in a situation of fear, abuse and oppression can be just as acute and enduring as physical harm, if not more.” In dismissing the prosecution’s appeal against the wife’s sentence, Justice See said she had inflicted “predominantly physical” harm to the victim. But he noted the husband’s sentence was manifestly inadequate, given the degree of psychological and physical harm the employer had caused the helper.

In their written judgement, the three judges pointed out the “humiliating and degrading” nature of the abuse, especially for the victims who were Muslim and Christian, made to bow before a Buddhist altar.

“Although he had no past convictions, the number and frequency of the attacks show that he was habitual and unrestrained in his abuse,” the judgement read.

To that end, the High Court set out a sentencing framework for cases of maid abuse.

(i) If the abuse was mainly physical, the court should consider the degree of harm, as well as the aggravating and mitigating factors, in deciding on the appropriate sentence.

(ii) If the abuse was both physical and psychological, the court then needs to identify the degree of harm caused in relation to each charge.

The court should then adjust the sentence for each charge in light of aggravating factors — such as preventing the victim from getting help — and mitigating circumstances, such as cooperating with the authorities. Subsequently, the court should decide which sentences to run consecutively, taking into account the duration and frequency of the abuse.

The High Court also set out indicative ranges corresponding to the degree of harm caused:

The defendants are currently on trial for abusing the Burmese domestic helper. The panel of three judges granted their application to remain being out on bail, till the trial is over later this year. They will serve their sentences after the other has completed his or her jail term, considering they have children to care for.

Chief Justice Menon also ordered the couple to pay compensation to the victim, but the amount will be decided subsequently. Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck has asked for a higher compensation sum from him, “given the duration of psychological harm” he had caused.

Our Criminal Lawyer, Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu, has defended numerous clients over the years over a wide variety of offences. With vast experience in Singapore’s laws, Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu will be able to provide valuable and timely advice for your situation. For more information, or if you have been caught in a similar situation, feel free to contact us for a consultation.

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