Real-life cases in Channel 5 court drama Verdict

Innocent till proven guilty. Right? But, no thanks to television dramas and films in which the accused is often convicted, it is all too easy for that fundamental tenet of justice to be forgotten. And that is one prejudice that lawyer Tan Hee Joek, 42, hopes that the legal docu-drama Verdict can help to quash.

He says: "This series shows a more balanced side of the criminal justice system. I hope that it can also address the popular misperception that if you are charged, you are definitely guilty of something."

Writer, director and executive producer Ellery Ngiam, 36, adds: "I hope that audiences won't judge the accused or the lawyers, but watch with an open mind and heart. We didn't want to turn anyone into a bad guy. These are human beings who have made mistakes and they are caught in a bind."

The 13-episode Verdict is showing on Channel 5 on Tuesdays at 10.30pm. It is based on real-life cases handled by the Pro Bono Services Office, an initiative by the Law Society of Singapore to give free legal assistance to those who need it.

For example, Mr Tan has handled a case in which a man was charged with the consumption of an illegal drug and his defence was that he had done so unknowingly. Unfortunately, he had thrown away crucial evidence - the sex drug he had purchased in the first place.

In each instance, names and details have been changed to protect the identities of the lawyers' clients.

While it is not mandatory for lawyers to do pro bono work, lawyers such as Mr Tan and Mr Tan Cheow Hung, 43, see it as a social responsibility. They have each been practising law for about 17 years and try to handle at least one pro bono trial case a year.

The latter adds: "We have the legal knowledge and skills and if you don't put it to good use and it's only about money, I think you have failed as a lawyer."

For them, the show is a good way to raise awareness for both lawyers and the people who need them.

Mr Tan Cheow Hung recalls: "My client was prepared to plead guilty because he couldn't afford a lawyer until he was referred to the Pro Bono Services Office."

He hopes that the series will also inspire more young lawyers to take up pro bono work. "If everyone can do just two or three cases a year, you get representation for almost everyone. And you get good representation that gives you access to justice, not just access to lawyers."

While he is happy to talk about legal counselling, he makes it clear that he does not want to be the focus of attention as "there are so many unsung heroes out there".

Verdict is not just a public service announcement though.

As Ngiam, an award-winning film-maker, says: "We had to strike a balance between fact and entertainment and telling a good story."

Mr Tan Hee Joek adds: "The court drama is one thing, but the fears and worries that each accused person faces are also stories worth telling."

While the people involved in each case are portrayed by actors, the actual lawyers appear briefly in each episode to talk about the case.

Asked what it felt like to see themselves on screen, both lawyers profess to being uncomfortable. Mr Tan Cheow Hung jokes: "I was wondering why there wasn't a more flattering angle to shoot me from."

Verdict airs on Channel 5 on Tuesdays at 10.30pm. Previously aired episodes can be seen via xinmsn's Catch-Up TV.