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The Straits Times says

Justice seen to be even-handed

The court case of a craven cyclist who collided into an elderly woman on a pavement, fractured her elbow and fled is notable on a number of counts. Being the first prosecution of a reckless cyclist using a pedestrian pavement, the sentencing precedent established was a matter of public interest. That the Public Prosecutor was appealing against a sentence considered to be "manifestly excessive" was rare enough for one to weigh the implications. And the approach of the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) towards unusual and difficult cases in general deserves attention, too.

For the general public, what is more arresting is the jail sentence imposed on the cyclist, Lim Choon Teck, for committing a rash act to endanger the safety of pedestrians. That signals emphatically that the law will not tolerate harm caused by the widespread habit of cycling on pavements, five-foot ways and sheltered paths, and even within bus stop shelters. Some use phones while cycling and others ride motorised two-wheelers at breakneck speed. It is altogether worrying as cycles carry no registration number and usage is not covered by liability insurance.

As the judge in Lim's case noted: "Cyclists know the risks against them are very low." Hence the clear need for a deterrent sentence when victims are physically hurt. The prosecution had proposed two to four weeks, the judge meted out eight weeks, and on appeal this was commuted to three weeks. Nothing less would have sufficed as negligent cycling in a dense city must be curbed.

The prosecutor's appeal should not be seen as exceptional as it is the duty of the AGC to act when a sentence is considered disproportionate (particularly when an accused is not represented). Playing a crucial role in the administration of criminal justice, the AGC has to remain fair, impartial and consistent. This is all the more pressing as in serving as the steward of the rule of law and in prosecuting cases vigorously, the layman might see it as strict enforcer - a perception bolstered by its other role of acting as the Government's chief legal adviser and counsel. Being a key national institution, the AGC is well aware that it must not just act even-handedly but also be seen to rise above the fray, as a guardian of the public interest.

Recognising that misperceptions can abound when sensitive cases arise, the AGC has evolved in recent years from a largely inscrutable institution to one that takes pains to educate the public and media about the law, the justice system, and its roles and functions. This commendable aspect of its work must be sustained as complex laws, legal processes and sentencing principles have to be constantly demystified for the benefit of different audiences. Given the social harm that can be caused by runaway misinterpretations, especially those spread via the Net, it's useful when points of law and fact are spelt out by the AGC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Justice seen to be even-handed'. Print Edition | Subscribe