Ailing CEO's case may help set judicial mercy rules

He seeks to reduce jail term on grounds that illnesses may be life-threatening in prison

A former chief executive's appeal for judicial mercy may well clarify the law in this area and set guidelines on when it should apply to convicted offenders who are seriously ill.

Chew Soo Chun, 45, convicted of cheating and falsifying accounts, has sought a reduction in the 32-month jail term he faces. He is seeking judicial mercy on the grounds that his dire medical condition could endanger his life if he is placed in prison.

Chew, a former chief executive of a shipping equipment supplier, was jailed 32 months and fined $10,000 in January for falsifying accounts and cheating a bank of more than $2.5 million in loans. He had pleaded guilty in 2012 to 10 of 149 charges against him and the rest were taken into consideration.

Chew produced 15 reports on his medical conditions from 11 doctors. Among other things, these indicated that he had heart problems and suffered from a localised gland cancer.

However, District Judge Soh Tze Bian found nothing in the reports to suggest that Chew would suffer disproportionate hardship if he were jailed and held judicial mercy was "not warranted". The judge added that the prison authorities confirmed they were able to manage Chew and arrange for him to undergo treatment at designated hospitals if the need arose.

Chew's lawyer, Mr Philip Fong, argued, among other things, that evidence from the prison authorities that they could meet Chew's medical needs should not be the overriding factor in deciding if he should be afforded judicial mercy.

District Judge Soh rejected his plea for a nominal jail term, but nonetheless discounted the original 38 months by six months, taking into account the medical factors in the case.

Chew's appeal to the High Court was heard on Monday.

Underscoring the issues raised, the appeal was heard by a rare three-judge panel comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Judicial Commissioner See Kee Oon. Such magistrate's appeals are usually heard by one High Court judge.

Chief Justice Menon had said in January that three-judge panels are meant to hear selected magistrate's appeals, which will provide guidance on issues of sentencing and resolve difficult questions. Such decisions will help promote "coherence and consistency", he added.

In another rare move underlining the case, the Chief Justice appointed lawyer Jordan Tan Zhengxian of Cavenagh Law - a former justices' law clerk and assistant registrar of the Supreme Court - as amicus curiae, who addressed the court on five key questions involving the application of judicial mercy.

Chew's lawyer, Mr Philip Fong, argued, among other things, that evidence from the prison authorities that they could meet Chew's medical needs should not be the overriding factor in deciding if he should be afforded judicial mercy.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Alan Loh cross-appealed, seeking to enhance Chew's jail term .

After the hearing, the court reserved judgment on the case.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Ailing CEO's case may help set judicial mercy rules'. Print Edition | Subscribe