Case Summaries

Public Prosecutor v Hue An Li

2 September 2014

Media Summary

Public Prosecutor v Hue An Li
Magistrate’s Appeal No 287 of 2013

Decision of the High Court (delivered by Sundaresh Menon CJ)

1        The Public Prosecutor (“the appellant”) appealed against the sentence meted out by the District Judge to Hue An Li (“the respondent”). The respondent, who had gone for more than 24 hours without sleep, was involved in a tragic accident when she momentarily dozed off while driving and collided into the back of a lorry. Nine workers, who were being transported in the rear cabin of the lorry at the time, were thrown out. Eight were injured, while one was pronounced dead at the scene. The respondent pleaded guilty to one charge of causing death by a negligent act, an offence under section 304A(b) of the Penal Code (Cap 224, 2008 Rev Ed). The District Judge sentenced the respondent to a fine of $10,000 (five weeks’ imprisonment in default) and disqualified her from driving for five years. A specially-constituted three-Judge panel of the High Court allowed the appeal, and increased the sentence to an imprisonment term of four weeks.

2       The Court held that when sentencing an offender for a section 304A(b) offence in cases where the negligent act took the form of negligent driving (“s 304A(b) traffic death cases”), the starting position was a short custodial sentence of up to four weeks’ imprisonment. This was liable to be adjusted up or down by reference to the extent of the offender’s negligence as well as the presence of aggravating and/or mitigating factors. The extent of other harm or injury caused was also a relevant factor. Moreover, if the offender had been speeding, drink-driving or driving despite being seriously sleep-deprived at the material time, a starting point of between two and four months’ imprisonment would be warranted. The respondent’s sentence in this case was enhanced because she had gone for more than 24 hours without sleep; she had been sufficiently alive to the risk of being overcome by fatigue; she was still getting used to her newly-bought car; she had driven on an expressway during the build-up to the morning rush hour, which would have called for greater alertness; and the accident resulted in extensive injuries to several people, one of whom was paralysed from the waist down. In this regard, the Court overruled its earlier decision in Public Prosecutor v Gan Lim Soon [1993] 2 SLR(R) 67 (“Gan Lim Soon”), where it was held that a fine would usually be sufficient in s 304A(b) traffic death cases.

3       Section 304A of the Penal Code comprises the separate offences of causing death by a rash act (subsection (a)) and causing death by a negligent act (subsection (b)), and each has its own distinct sentencing range. Both the rashness and the negligence limbs of section 304A involve the offender falling below the objective standard of the reasonable person. The dividing line between rashness and negligence is generally a question of whether the offender was aware of the potential risks that might arise from his conduct. Where this is found to be the case, rashness will be made out.

4       It is undeniably true that pedestrians, among other classes of road users, are a vulnerable class. But, offenders in s 304A(b) traffic death cases should not, as a rule, be punished more harshly simply because they have collided into a vulnerable class of road users. Much would depend on the precise facts of each case.

5       Judicial pronouncements are, by default, fully retroactive in nature. Accordingly, any change in the legal position that is effected by a decision will apply even to the case in which the change is pronounced. Our appellate courts (namely, the High Court sitting in its appellate capacity and the Court of Appeal) nevertheless have the discretion, in exceptional circumstances, to restrict the retroactive effect of their pronouncements by ruling that a particular pronouncement is to have effect only prospectively, ie, only in future cases. In this regard, four factors are to be taken into account: first, the extent to which the law or legal principle concerned is entrenched; second, the extent of the change to the law; third, the extent to which the change to the law is foreseeable; and fourth, the extent of reliance on the law or legal principle concerned. No one factor is preponderant over any other, and no one factor is necessary before prospective overruling can be adopted in a particular case. In the current case, the Court moved away from the previous entrenched position in Gan Lim Soon that a fine would usually be sufficient in s 304A(b) traffic death cases, but was also cognisant that it would be unfair to the respondent if no regard were had to that entrenched position. Thus, while the Court overruled Gan Lim Soon, given that the sentencing guidelines laid down in that case were well entrenched and had been applied in many cases, the Court decided that it would apply the new sentencing approach only to future s 304A(b) traffic death cases, ie, it would prospectively overrule Gan Lim Soon. The Court therefore sentenced the respondent on the basis of the principles set out in Gan Lim Soon. The Court found that even on that basis, a four-week term of imprisonment was appropriate because of the number of aggravating factors present in this case. Were prospective overruling not warranted in this case, the respondent would have been sentenced to a much longer term of imprisonment than the four-week imprisonment term imposed by the Court.
This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court.

This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court.