Elements Of Criminal Offence In Singapore

What Is A Criminal Offence In Singapore?

Criminal offence in Singapore is defined as behaviour that has been designated as criminal by legislation enacted by Parliament. Criminal offences in Singapore is based on a three-stage analysis: 

  1. The physical element: is the accused’s conduct or behaviour prohibited by legislation? 
  2. The fault elementwhat was the accused’s state of mind at the time the offence was committed? 
  3. The defencesEven if the physical and fault elements are present, are there any defences that might be raised to relieve the accused of criminal liability?

It is important to note that an accused will only be liable for an offence if he or she is found to have fulfilled both the physical and fault elements of a criminal offence provided by legislation.

The prosecution would have to prove its case against an accused ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, which is the standard of proof required in criminal proceedings.

The Physical Element

Most offences require the accused to have committed an act which is prohibited by legislation. Some of these offences further require that the conduct must have been performed under certain circumstances or to have caused a certain result.

There are also offences which incriminate an accused for being connected with a state of affairs, with no explicit requirement of conduct on the accused’s part.

These ingredients of an offence comprising conduct, circumstances, a result or state of affairs are commonly referred to as actus reus, meaning “guilty act”.

The physical element of an offence is referred to as “illegal conduct” as it covers both an action (positive acts) and a failure to act (omissions).

Although a majority of offences are based on acts, not omissions, there are a few exceptional instances where omissions may also incriminate the accused.

For an act to be an offence will depend on the definition of the offence, with some offences describing the particular act with greater precision than others.

What Does ‘Illegal’ Actually Mean?

However, as the general rule is that criminal liability is attracted to conduct comprising positive acts by the accused but not usually by his or her failure to act, only omissions which are ‘illegal’ will attract criminal liability.

‘Illegal’ is defined in the Penal Code as “applicable to everything which is an offence, or which is prohibited by law, or which furnishes ground for a civil action”.

With respect to the word “illegal”, a person is said to be “legally bound to do” whatever it is illegal for him or her to omit.

There are also some offences where the physical element consists only of conduct without the need for it to have been performed under particular circumstances or to have produced a specified result.

Examples of such offences are conspiracy or abetment or attempts.

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Voluntary And Involuntary When Committing An Offence

A fundamental principle is that, where the physical elements of an offence include conduct (regardless of whether it is an act or omission), such conduct must be voluntary.

Where conduct is involuntary, the accused cannot be held criminally liable for the offence. Voluntariness involves the ability of the person to control his or her conduct. The crux of voluntariness, however, is control rather than consciousness. 

Before we proceed with the fault element of an offence, it is important to note that there are some statutory offences which only require proof of specified physical elements and not the fault element. These offences can be classified as “strict liability” offences.

The Mental Element

The mental element of an offence is referred to as the mens rea, meaning “guilty mind”.

It connotes a subjective state of mind such as intention or knowledge. The mental element of an offence is also commonly referred to as ‘fault’. The offences created by the Penal Code and other criminal statutes use many terms to describe the fault of the prescribed offences.

The primary terms are intention, knowledge, reason to believe, rashness, recklessness, dishonestly, fraudulently and negligently.

Generally, statutory interpretation requires these terms to be interpreted in the same way throughout a particular statute unless the context dictates otherwise.

Overview Of Defences

Most of the defences to criminal offences are found in the Penal Code. These defences are not confined to the offences in the Penal Code but apply throughout all of Singapore’s criminal law.

A general definition of a defence is where the accused admits to the offence elements occurred but seeks exculpation on the ground of some justification or excuse, or a mental impairment rendering the accused blameless.

As a starting point, the prosecution would have the legal burden of proving that the accused’s conduct fulfils the elements of an offence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Thereafter, the accused relying on a particular defence would bear the legal burden of proving that the defence that he or she is relying on.

The general list of defences in the Penal Code are mistake, private defence, duress, necessity, consent, accident and the special exceptions to the offence of murder are provocation, excessive private defence and sudden fight.

There are several other defences recognised by the Penal Code which are premised on the idea that it would be unjust to convict and punish a person who had committed an offence when suffering some form of mental impairment.

The defences are unsoundness of mind, intoxication, automatism and diminished responsibility.

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Any person viewing or receiving information from this Website should not act or refrain from acting, on the basis of any such information without first seeking appropriate legal advice.
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