This Side of the Fence: #2 – The Client

The importance of the statements which an accused person gives during the initial investigations cannot be over-stated.

Perspectives from a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Capital Trials

A person arrested or charged with an offence in Singapore does not have the right to immediately call a lawyer for advice. Our Constitution does enshrine a right of access to counsel, but does not specify when this can be enforced. A previous challenge to say that this should be within 48 hours of arrest was rejected by the Court of Appeal1, which held that a “reasonable” amount of time should be allowed for investigations to complete, during which time the accused person can be denied access to counsel. What is a “reasonable” length of time depends on the facts of each case, and the Courts have held2 that a timespan as long as 29 days is not unreasonable.

A lot happens during this time. The police would be working the ground, collecting evidence and interviewing potential witnesses. The accused person would be separately interviewed, multiple times, by the investigation officer(s). No doubt, he would be read his rights3. But in Singapore, the Criminal Procedure Code allows the Court to draw adverse inferences from mere silence. And bearing in mind that he would not have had access to legal advice, it would not be unusual for the accused person to give several statements to the police during this period, often rich in detail.

It is near-impossible to overstate the importance of these statements. Many a case stands or falls on them. If they are inconsistent, the accused person loses creditworthiness. If they are missing a detail which later emerges during trial, he will be accused of crafting an “afterthought” defence. If they tell a story different from the defence presented at trial, the accused person is painted as an out-and-out liar. The consequence? The unfortunate perception that nothing the defence says should be believed – the truth is what the prosecution says it is.

An altogether terrifying thought, considering that most of us do not know that this is the way our criminal justice process works, and are therefore ill-prepared for it.

On average, by the time defence counsel get to meet the accused for the first time, months would have passed since the initial arrest. Prison inmates in Singapore reportedly4 spend 23 hours a day in their cells. Having committed a serious crime (or been accused of one), awaiting trial for their lives, what would they be thinking about? In all likelihood, the events of that particular moment which had landed them in prison.

But human memory is embarrassingly, not to mention notoriously, fallible. Research5 suggests that the very act of bringing up a memory puts it at risk of modification. Now imagine if this is done multiple times a day, several days, for months or even years. Even independent eyewitnesses with no interest in distorting the truth have misremembered. In the United States, a not insignificant number of persons falsely convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated6 years later by DNA evidence.

The result is that by the time of the initial client interview, there are several accounts to juggle. There is the account of the (alleged) crime itself. There is the issue of whether this matches the account that the accused person had signed away in his police statements, or remembers signing. Very often, they do not – even if we are told that they do. To complicate matters, these statements are not given to the accused person or defence counsel until relatively late in the trial process, if at all. So, we go into this first meeting with nothing more than the charge and perhaps a newspaper report, which we use to prompt our questions.

It should not be too difficult to imagine and agree with the proposition that what is significant about a case differs, depending on one’s perspective, background and interests. So we can expect the questions asked by a police officer recording a statement to differ from those asked by a defence lawyer taking instructions at the initial client meeting. And of course, both these perspectives will differ from that of the accused person himself. Some have gone so far as to declare in their initial police interviews that they committed the crime and did not wish to live anymore. Others have declared that “you can write whatever you want, I don’t care.”

Forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony and other pieces of objective evidence can tell us whether the physical criminal act has been carried out. There is no equivalent for mental culpability. Save for a limited sphere of offences for which strict liability is imposed for public policy reasons, the vast majority of criminal offences require an intention to carry out the criminal act (or, at the very least, a failure to take reasonable care not to). Then there is the issue of recognizing the diminished culpability of mentally disturbed persons, or those who had momentarily lost control of their impulses. Members of civilized society would accept that a person who had not intentionally committed a crime should not be held to the same standard of accountability as someone who had.

But how does one go about proving this? The eyes may be the window to the soul, but most of us are still terribly poor at spotting the truth. Neither has psychiatry advanced to the point where experts usually agree on a particular diagnosis – the evidence for this is every case in which the prosecution and defence each proffer their own psychiatrists who may agree on the objective diagnostic criteria for a particular mental disorder, but disagree on whether this applies to the accused person on trial.

Peering into one’s own mind is a difficult endeavor. Peering into the mind of someone other than oneself, even more so. This is the unenviable task of the judge in every case where the mens rea constituting the offence is in dispute. There is no way to objectively measure (if that is the right word) mens rea. At best, it has to be inferred from all of the surrounding circumstances, the accused’s police statements and his testimony on the stand. Being more contemporaneous and proximate in time to the alleged crime, the police statements will invariably be given far greater weight than the later courtroom testimony.

In the immediate aftermath of an arrest, the only companions an accused person knows are his police captors, who have him at their mercy until they are satisfied with the state of his statements and their external investigations. Much has been said about the value of cross-examination in ascertaining “truth” in the courtroom, but we forget that an initial “cross-examination” has already taken place in the lockup, with little judicial oversight and no one to advocate for or advise the person being cross-examined.

Some may say that this is the best way to get at the truth. The question we should ask is: must “truth” come at the expense of due process and individual liberties?

This article is written by Chooi Jing Yen and was first published on Asia Law Network.


  1. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/law-reasonable-time-accused-gets-access-counsel-clear-court-appeal (last accessed on 9 December 2019)
  2. https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/05/19/the-right-to-legal-counsel/ (last accessed on 9 December 2019)
  3. https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CPC2010?ProvIds=P1IV-#pr23-  (last accessed on 9 December 2019)
  4. https://www.prison-insider.com/countryprofile/prisons-singapore (last accessed on 9 December 2019)
  5. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2013/05/20/when-memories-are-remembered-they-can-be-rewritten/ (last accessed on 9 December 2019)
  6. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24286258 (last accessed on 9 December 2019)