Court/Judicial body: Court of Appeal
Citation:  SGCA 38
Date: 20 August 1997
Instrument(s) cited: Penal Code (Cap 224), Criminal Procedure Code (Cap 68), Prisons Act (Cap 247), Prisons Regulations (Cap 247, Reg 2)
Background: The appellant was sentenced to life imprisonment in relation to the kidnapping of two police officers, which took place while he was already serving a sentence of 18 years imprisonment for the offence of robbery with hurt. At the sentencing for the kidnapping, the judge ordered that the life sentence commences after the expiration of his previous sentence. In the current case, the appellant argued that the trial judge should have ordered concurrent sentencing, in which case he would effectively only have to serve 20 years (being the general practice at the time for sentences of life imprisonment).
Issue and resolution: Life imprisonment. The Court rejected the appeal and decided that the judge was correct to order that the two sentences run consecutively, given the unrelated nature of the two crimes. More notably the Court clarified the meaning of ‘life sentence’ in the Penal Code and held that in future cases this should be interpreted to mean the whole duration of a person’s life and not 20 years.
Court reasoning: The first issue the Court faced was whether the sentence of life imprisonment should equate to 20 years (as was the practice at the time) or the remainder of the convicted person’s natural life and concluded that, unless the legislature in the future provides otherwise, this sentence should mean the remainder of the person’s natural life. The Court’s view was that ‘life’ should be given its natural and ordinary meaning, which would accord with the plain meaning of the words in the Penal Code and would express the legislative intent that life imprisonment must be the next most severe sentence after the death penalty, but his would not be the case if life imprisonment were equated with 20 years. The Court considered whether its pronouncement should have retroactive effect but concluded that it should instead only have prospective effect in order not to defeat the legitimate expectations of people who had already been accused or convicted of an offence that life imprisonment equates to 20 years. The second issue the Court faced was whether the sentence handed down to the appellant by the lower court should commence at the time of being passed or only upon expiration of his earlier sentence. Whilst the general rule is that a sentence commences from the date it is passed, court have discretion, in the event that a person already serving a prison sentence is handed an additional sentence, to decide that the latter sentence should only commence upon the expiration of the previous sentence. It was held that the court below had not erred in deciding that the two sentences should run consecutively since the kidnapping offence was separate and distinct from the earlier offence and to decide otherwise would effectively make the second crime inconsequential. The appellant’s appeal for concurrent sentencing was therefore dismissed. Since the Court’s pronouncement on the meaning of life imprisonment was held to only take prospective effect, the appellant’s life imprisonment sentence was taken to mean 20 years and such sentence should therefore commence only upon expiration of the prior sentence. Impact: Life imprisonment is now defined in Section 2(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code as meaning imprisonment for the duration of a person’s natural life. However, under Regulation 119A of the Prison (Amendment) Regulations 1998, once a prisoner serving a life sentence has served 20 years, his case will be eligible for annual reviews to examine his suitability for release.
Link to full judgement: http://lwb.lawnet.com.sg/legal/lgl/rss/landmark/%5B1997%5D_SGCA_38.html