City Harvest trial: Most costly criminal trial in Singapore?

City Harvest church founder Kong Hee and his wife Ho Yeow Sun arriving at the state courts on Oct 21, 2015.
City Harvest church founder Kong Hee and his wife Ho Yeow Sun arriving at the state courts on Oct 21, 2015. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Legal costs in City Harvest case could shoot beyond $10 million, say lawyers

The City Harvest trial could go down as the most expensive criminal trial in Singapore's history.

After 141 days in court, all six defendants - including the church's founding pastor Kong Hee - were found guilty on Wednesday of varying counts of criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts.

Senior lawyers The Straits Times spoke to said it would not be surprising if costs exceeded $2 million for each of the five defendants still being represented by lawyers. Four of these five are represented by Senior Counsel, regarded as the elite in the legal profession here, who can charge upwards of $1,000 an hour, said lawyers.

The remaining defendant, former church fund manager Chew Eng Han, has represented himself since May last year. Previously, he was represented by Senior Counsel Michael Khoo.

The defendants' lawyers declined to comment.

Legal costs for the trial could shoot beyond $10 million, which would make it the most expensive criminal legal battle here, said experts. The figure does not include the bail... which ranges from $750,000 to $1 million.

 
 

Chew, however, told The Straits Times that he had paid $1.1 million in legal fees so far. Of this, $400,000 came from a fund to which church members contributed, he said.

Put together, legal costs for the trial could shoot beyond $10 million, which would make it the most expensive criminal legal battle here, said experts.

The figure does not include the bail posted by each accused, which ranges from $750,000 to $1 million.

"It has been a very extensive and long trial that would require intensive preparation over a long period of time. So the legal fees would be quite substantial," said Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming.

Other costly criminal battles include that of former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay, who was acquitted of corruption in 2013. It was estimated then that the trial could have cost over $1 million.

The City Harvest trial is also one of the longest criminal trials on record, though still not as long as a drug trafficking trial that ran for 168 days in the 1990s.

Veteran criminal lawyer Amolat Singh pointed out that with four Senior Counsel and their legal teams, costs would mount quickly.

"Everyone on the team has billable hours," he said, adding that the complexity of the trial is another big factor.

The prosecution alone called 14 witnesses and produced more than 1,400 documents.

"White-collar crime is always more complex than normal crime. For white-collar crime, you have so many angles, so many documents, so many vouchers - all these add to the complexity," said Mr Singh.

However, another veteran lawyer, who declined to be named, said if the $2 million in costs were averaged over the length of the trial, it would work out to a daily rate of about $14,000.

He said: "That's actually not unreasonable."

Meanwhile, despite the fact that in 2012, the Commissioner of Charities had warned the church against raising funds to pay the legal fees of the accused, former and current church members said independent efforts to raise funds have persisted.

Former member Nanz Chong-Komo, 46, said there were always "a lot of initiatives and encouragement" in church to help the defendants financially. She left the church in 2013.

Another church member, a prominent local businessman who declined to be named, confirmed this, and said he had personally given "a little bit".

"This is more like a love offering, it's not a church thing. The (defendants) never solicited donations. People give of their own free will," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline 'Most costly criminal trial in S'pore?'. Print Edition | Subscribe