Criminal Justice System in Singapore

Panel Discussion on due process, inequality & the public’s perception of Singapore’s criminal justice system

1. Introduction

Following a number of high-profile court decisions in late-2020, MustShareNews invited Chooi Jing Yen onto a panel discussion to share his thoughts on these recent court cases: Parti Liyani’s acquittal following an appeal in the High Court & the results of the cases for some of the accused persons involved in the Orchard Towers Murder.

These are some of the soundbites.

2. Case Study 1: Parti Liyani – Does Singapore’s Judicial System favour the rich?

2.1. Why are most people’s first reaction to look at the case as a battle between rich and poor?

Jing Yen: The perception would come about when people … try and compare a poor person who is accused of a crime and a rich person who is accused of a crime. This comes about because lawyers cost money. Naturally, a poor person who is accused of a crime … does not have the same level of access to lawyers as a more wealthy person, both in terms of choice of representation, as well as, whether you can even get a lawyer, whether there is a pro bono lawyer willing to step forward.

But that leads us to a second question, which is, should your guilt or innocence in the courts actually depend on how good your lawyer is?

There was this criminal case where I genuinely believed that my client was innocent. The evidence was all in our favour. Unfortunately, when the verdict was handed down by the District Judge, it was a conviction and the sentence as well was fairly heavy. As I have seen more cases over the years, I have sort of rationalized how the judges make their decisions, as well as, which are the cases that we need to take up on appeal. I would say, on balance, the criminal justice system currently that we have, is quite fair and balanced.

2.2. Maybe it is easier for some people to find a lawyer in the first place like a really big rich family who maybe they don’t have to look that far. By virtue of it being an adversarial system, isn’t it kind of unfair?

That is a very valid point. But we should also recognise that, to a large extent, that is evaluated by pro bono legal services because an accused person who cannot pick up the phone and call a lawyer, he/she would nonetheless be informed that there are pro bono lawyers available. There is a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. This would be offered to that person quite early on in the court process.

2.3. Do the State Courts and the High Courts have the same processes?

It is quite different. The evidence has all been taken at the State Courts’ level. What then happens on appeal, in the High Court, usually it is a half day hearing, where the judge goes through the entire record of appeal; everything that has been classified in the State Courts is reduced in writing in transcripts recorded. He/She goes through that (record of appeal), he/she goes through the submissions of the prosecution and the defense in the court below, he looks at the exhibits, and then he comes to his own conclusion as to whether the Trial Judge was right. To put it very simply why the District Judge and the High Court judge reached such starkly different decisions; you are talking about a case that was decided by one judge. And the reality is, sometimes judges do get things wrong and so the High Court judge essentially formed the view that the decision was wrong.

If a case has started out in the High Court, then you have a right to bring an appeal to the Court of Appeal, where you will be heard actually by at least three judges. If a case has started out in the State Courts, then your right of appeal is only up to the High Court. Unless, you can show a very exceptional public interest element for why you should be allowed to go one more level higher to the Court of Appeal.

3. Case Study 2: Orchard Towers Murder – is there inadequate representation for murder victims?

There is no requirement for legal representation for murder victims. But from a legal perspective, it is possible to claim for damages. If we recall, there was an accident involving a taxi driver and someone passed away. There were prosecutions and after that, the family of the deceased as well, brought a legal claim. The avenue is there. What people really are feeling is that they do not think perhaps the punishment that has been meted out to the accused persons is adequate.

A decision was made very early on to charge many people with murder. Sometimes, there is a good reason to do this because the police need to have that charge so that they can hold those people in police custody, and complete investigations. And then find out exactly what happened. Once they have a clearer idea of what has happened, then they re-look at the charges again and then they … bring a more appropriate charge against particular individuals. But because the public has already had this thought that there has been seven people charged with murder, how come some of them are now facing lesser charges?

[Also read: How Criminal Charges Are Downgraded – Explained, Suang Wijaya explained how someone can get charged with murder and end up with a conditional warning for a reduced charge, and how charges are reduced based on the diminished responsibility.]

3.1. How can the criminal justice system defend people who have committed a heinous crime?

Jing Yen: Whether someone is innocent or guilty in the eyes of people, that is irrelevant in court. If that person in question has come and told me, he is guilty in this case, then there wouldn’t be a trial. The issue becomes, “What should be the most appropriate and fair sentence for that person?”

When some wrong has been done to you, your primal instinct is you want a retribution for the person who inflicted that upon you. If someone has passed away, you have a primal instinct you want to seek revenge. Is that one of the aims of the criminal justice system? Yes, it is. But it’s one of four. There are other aims of the criminal justice system. One of them is rehabilitation. There are deterrent aims as well. If a life has already been lost, do we want to take away another?

3.2. Are public polls a good indicator of the level of trust the citizens have for the criminal justice system?

Responsible journalism has a huge role to play in this shaping public deception, as well as access to alternative voices of the media. As long as the factual basis are all accurate.

3.3. Is there ever a place for emotions in the court of Law?

Emotions are the very center of human experience. They are important. But when you talk about a crime has been committed, the deed has been done, what next? Whose emotions should we be looking at? And that is why the courts have taken into account remorse; that is a relevant emotion.

3.4. What other sources should we consider aside from receiving the news through the media?

The best source is actually the court judgement. If there’s a written grounds of decision, read that. As far as you’re talking about High Court, and Court of Appeal judgments, the Supreme court website is very updated. Everything that comes out on a day-to-day basis will be there and they archive it quite a few years back. That is available now. As far as the District Court judgments are concerned, they are not available unless you subscribe to LawNet. For example, you could very well go on to the supreme court website search for “Parti Liyani” – you can read the High Court judgment as well.

3.5. Do you trust the criminal justice system in Singapore?

The criminal justice system certainly can be trusted. But can it be improved? Certainly, it is always a work in progress and it is the responsibility of all the stakeholders to work towards that.