City Harvest Case Update

Managing Director of Straits Law Practice, Mr N. Sreenivasan, SC, acted for the one of the Respondents, former Deputy Senior Pastor Tan Ye Peng, in the State Court trial, the High Court appeal and the Court of Appeal Criminal Reference (reported as Public Prosecutor v Lam Leng Hung and others [2018] SGCA 7).

 

Introduction

After one of the longest criminal trials in Singapore’s history stretching over 142 trial days, one appeal to the High Court and a rarely invoked criminal reference made to the Court of Appeal, the City Harvest Church (“CHC”) case has finally come to an end. The case saw six of CHC’s former leaders convicted of misusing SGD$26 million of church building funds on sham bonds in music production company Xtron and glass-maker Firna between 2007 and 2009. There was also a lot of public interest given that the funds were used to finance the music career of the Senior Pastor’s wife, as part of the CHC’s “Crossover” project.

 

The Proceedings

Although the trial judge convicted the accused on the more serious charges of criminal breach of trust in the business of an agent, this was overturned by a specially-constituted High Court bench of three judges in a 2-1 decision. The matter was then referred to a five-judge bench of the Court of Appeal on a criminal reference, where the bid by the prosecutors to reinstate the original convictions, and sentences, for the 6 accused persons was dismissed.

In coming to this decision, the Court of Appeal affirmed the majority decision of the High Court, which overruled the previous decision of the High Court in Tay Choo Wah v Public Prosecutor [1974-1976] SLR(R) 725. In the earlier decision it had held that company directors could be convicted for criminal breach of trust under section 409 of the Penal Code. Mr Sreeni and the other counsel for the accused successfully argued before the High Court and the Court of Appeal that company directors, as well as governing board members of key officers of charities and societies, can only be convicted under Section 406 of the Penal Code for “criminal breach of trust” simpliciter, and not Section 409 of the Penal Code for “criminal breach of trust in the business of an agent”.

This was significant because it highlights the lacuna in the law in relation to the punishment for senior officers charged with criminal breach of trust. While ordinary employees convicted of criminal breach of trust may be punished with a mandatory jail term of up to fifteen years with a fine, directors convicted of the same, unless they are employees or otherwise in the business of being agents, can only be jailed up to seven years and/or fined.

Complex legal issues relating to the legislative history and background of the sections relating to property offences and the constitutional limits of the Court’s power to interpret statutes were considered by the Court of Appeal, and the Court eventually found that the lacuna could only be filled by legislative amendment.

 

If you have any questions relating to this case note, please contact Mr N. Sreenivasan, SC at sreeni@straitslaw.com.sg or the Straits Law director who usually attends to your matters. This case note was written with the contributions from Karishma Rai (Trainee).