Foreign Domestic Worker in Singapore Acquitted of 10 Charges

Portela Vilma Jimenez v Public Prosecutor HC/MA 9002/2020/01

1. Introduction

We are pleased to share that on 30 October 2020, the Honourable Justice Chua Lee Ming (the “Judge”) acquitted our client, Portela Vilma Jimenez (”Portela”), a Filipino domestic helper, of all 10 criminal charges that had been brought against her. Portela had been charged with allegedly withdrawing money from her employer’s (the “complainant’s”) bank account 8 times over 2 months, without his consent.

Suang Wijaya and Syazana Yahya (with Ariffin Sha’s great assistance) acted for Portela.

We also owe an immense debt of gratitude to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (“HOME”), and Portela’s unwavering network of friends and supporters.

2. The complainant’s version of the events

The complainant alleged that there had been unauthorised withdrawals from his two bank accounts in January and February 2017. The complainant stated that he never consented to Portela taking his 2 ATM cards. The complainant also alleged that he never gave Portela the PIN numbers to his 2 ATM cards.

3. Portela’s defence

Portela’s defence was that the complainant authorised the withdrawals. She testified that the complainant paid her some of the monies exchange for favours. According to her, this happened on a few occasions over January and February 2017.

We ran the case that, sometime shortly before 21 February 2017, the complainant’s family must have found out about various withdrawals from the complainant’s bank account. They must have asked him about these withdrawals. We argued that the employer then must have lied to his family, claiming that the withdrawals were unauthorised. We argued that the employer must then have had no choice but to lodge a false police report, to support his fabricated claim.

Needless to say, the complainant denied Portela’s version of the events.

4. The Prosecution’s evidence

One problem with the complainant’s story is that in his police report, the complainant claimed that he found out about the “unauthorised” withdrawals on 2 February 2017. The complainant also claimed in his police report that he had, in the first week of February 2017, visited the bank and reported these alleged “unauthorised” transactions.

However, at the trial, it was revealed that there was no record of this alleged bank visit in the first week of February 2017. The complainant’s police report was made only on 22 February 2017, some 3 weeks after he allegedly found out about the “unauthorised” withdrawals. Even stranger, between the time the complainant allegedly found out about the “unauthorised” withdrawals on 2 February 2017 and the police report on 22 February 2017, Portela somehow still managed to make a few more “unauthorised” withdrawals from the complainant’s 2 ATM cards!

Also oddly, the complainant testified at trial that he always had his wallet in his pocket at all times, even when he is in the toilet. Memorably, the complainant told the Court at trial that “even today”, his ATM cards, are in his wallet, which are in his pocket. This, coupled with the fact that the complainant was a former policeman who claimed to be careful with money, raises questions about how it was possible for Portela to have taken his ATM cards on multiple occasions without him knowing.

5. Portela’s evidence

Sometime in April 2017, without advance notice, Portela was suddenly asked to pack up and go to a maid agency. She was not told why. At the maid agency, and to Portela’s shock, police officers showed up to interrogate her regarding allegations of theft. Statements were taken without a Tagalog interpreter present. Portela’s own handwritten statements show that she had poor command of English.

Despite the unannounced interrogation, Portela steadfastly maintained her innocence. From the start,  she explained that all withdrawals were authorised by the complainant. She also explained that he paid her monies in exchange for favours.

She maintained this position all the way to the trial.

6. The Court proceedings

The trial in the District Court took 5 days. To our disappointment, Portela was found guilty by the learned District Judge and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. Portela appealed against the conviction.

Portela’s High Court appeal against her guilty verdict was heard on the morning of 30 October 2020. After oral arguments concluded, there was a short break of 20 minutes. After the break, the Judge immediately acquitted Portela, giving brief oral reasons for his verdict.

The Judge accepted 4 of our arguments. First, there is no evidence that the complainant made any report to the bank in the first week of February 2017. This is contrary to what he claims in his police report. Second, this means that the complainant inexplicably took 3 weeks to make a police report about the “unauthorised” withdrawals. The Judge found that this delay in reporting supports Portela’s case that the complainant consented all these withdrawals. Third, the Prosecution failed to put to Portela its case on how Portela could possibly have accessed the complainant’s ATM cards. This was crucial, given the complainant’s own evidence that his wallet, containing the ATM cards, were with him at all times. Fourth, the Prosecution failed to put its case to Portela on how the complainant could have obtained the employer’s PIN number, if it had not been given to her by the complainant himself.

The Judge therefore concluded that a reasonable doubt had been raised on the charges against Portela. He acquitted Portela on all 10 charges of theft.

7. Our thoughts

As a result of the police complaint made by the employer in February 2017, Portela was subject to investigations, a criminal trial and an appeal. This ordeal lasted more than 3 years. During this period, she was unable to work and earn an income. She was also separated from her family and faced the daunting prospect of being incarcerated for a substantial period of time in a foreign land. It is difficult to imagine a more harrowing experience.

We are again immensely grateful to HOME and Portela’s network of friends and supporters, without whom Portela’s journey would have been much more daunting.

There are many domestic helpers out there facing  predicaments similar to Portela’s and Parti Liyani’s. We urge readers to donate to HOME’s access to justice  funds that will go towards helping domestic workers’ fight for justice. You may donate here.

We are glad that justice was served. We wish Portela all the very best in her future endeavours.