Volunteers to offer minors support in police interviews

Young suspects will soon be accompanied by independent, trained volunteers during police interviews, announced the Ministry of Home Affairs on Friday (Jan 6), following an inter-agency review of criminal investigation processes.
Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam (third from left), pictured with other members of the review committee at the press conference to announce the outcome of the review of the handling of young suspects under criminal investigation.
Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam (third from left), pictured with other members of the review committee at the press conference to announce the outcome of the review of the handling of young suspects under criminal investigation.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Appropriate Adult Scheme for suspects aged below 16 to be launched in phases from April

Young suspects aged below 16 who have to be interviewed by the police will get support from independent volunteers, in a new scheme following a review of criminal investigation procedures.

These volunteers, who will be present during the interviews, will look out for signs of distress in the suspects and provide them with emotional support.

But they must remain neutral and not provide legal advice or disrupt the course of justice in any way.

Their role comes under an Appropriate Adult (AA) Scheme for minors, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced yesterday.

Similar to an existing AA scheme for offenders with intellectual or mental disabilities, it will be launched in phases from April and be fully implemented by mid-2019.

The first phase, expected to cost around $400,000, will start with about 100 volunteers at the Bedok Division, Criminal Investigation Department of the police and the investigation division of the Central Narcotics Bureau.

The Ministry of Education (MOE), which took part in the review, said it will also introduce more measures to support students under investigation.

When a student is taken from school, these steps include getting a familiar staff member to accompany him or her in the police vehicle, said an MOE spokesman. The companion could be the student's teacher, year head or school counsellor.

Besides the police informing parents of the arrest as soon as possible, schools will keep in touch "to work out follow-up steps", such as monitoring the child's well-being and offering counselling support, said MOE.

 

While young suspects will mostly be interviewed in an AA's presence, in exceptional cases, the police may start interviews first, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. For example, officers may need to speak to suspects quickly to assess if there are accomplices.

More than 7,000 young suspects were arrested by the police between 2011 and 2015 for offences including rioting. But only 15 per cent of such cases were prosecuted in court, said Mr Shanmugam.

MHA added that there is a need to uphold public interest in solving and preventing crime, while balancing the interests of young suspects.

This means "having to interview quickly in order to make sure there is no information leakage" and others involved are picked up, while considering the minor's needs, said Mr Shanmugam.

The inter-agency review of investigation processes for young suspects was announced last March following the suicide of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim, who fell to his death on Jan 26 last year, hours after he was taken from school and questioned by the police over a case of alleged molestation.

Led by MHA, the review saw other adjustments to improve coordination among agencies when a young person is involved.

This includes sharing information about the suspect between the police and schools for a better appreciation of his or her personal circumstances, said MHA.

MOE, the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) were also involved in the review.

A committee to implement the new AA scheme is led by the AGC and includes representatives from government agencies, the Law Society of Singapore and the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore.

Benjamin's father, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, called the new scheme "encouraging", but said it might be more reassuring for minors to see a familiar face, such as family members or school staff.

• Additional reporting by Ng Hui Wen

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'Volunteers to offer minors support in police interviews'. Print Edition | Subscribe