Proposal to regulate psychiatric expert evidence raises concern

A proposed move to regulate psychiatric expert evidence in criminal proceedings has raised concerns among some in the profession, even as they see the need for a set of minimum standards.

Among the changes to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act proposed last Monday includes a court-administered panel of psychiatrists, who are the only ones allowed to give psychiatric expert evidence in criminal cases.

Psychiatric evidence is commonly relied on when the accused person pleads guilty and the court has to determine the appropriate sentence. The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said such instances form the majority of criminal cases though numbers are not available.

In contrast, other types of expert evidence - such as forensic pathology or accident reconstruction - are usually relevant in determining if a person is guilty or not, said MinLaw, adding that such cases, which have to go to trial, are the minority.

Dr Adrian Wang, who runs a private psychiatric practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said psychiatric evidence may often be subjective and that sufficient professional experience is crucial.

"The court may think that since we receive payment from patients, we may be biased in our findings. If we set some minimum standards, these doubts will hopefully be cast aside," he added.

CLEARING MISGIVINGS

The court may think that since we receive payment from patients, we may be biased in our findings. If we set some minimum standards, these doubts will hopefully be cast aside.

DR ADRIAN WANG, who runs a private psychiatric practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, on how the move may be good.

However, Dr Brian Yeo, a psychiatrist consultant at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, questioned if psychiatrists have been singled out unnecessarily. "These are fair measures to take, but it doesn't look good for the profession. It seems to imply that even after specialist training, we need to show expertise that go further and beyond."

He called for other experts to be regulated as well, as there can be disparity in expert opinions in other fields.

Dr Ken Ung, a psychiatrist at Adam Road Medical Centre, asked for more clarity on the size of the panel, saying young psychiatrists may turn away from forensic work, thus narrowing the pool available if the criteria are too stringent.

Psychiatrists seeking to be on the panel, which carries a two-year term, must be qualified psychiatrists, have undertaken work or training in forensic psychiatry, and produce two character references from members of the Academy of Medicine for at least seven years.

There were 228 psychiatrists as of December last year, based on data by the Singapore Medical Council.

Lawyers and law academics noted that having a panel of expert psychiatrists would be a practice unique to Singapore. Many jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, have introduced reforms to streamline the use of expert evidence. These include allowing the court to appoint its own expert or providing for joint expert reports.

These measures are aimed at ensuring that court time is not wasted and expert evidence is reliable and objective, said National University of Singapore (NUS) law don Kumaralingam Amirthalingam.

NUS law professor Jeffrey Pinsler, who specialises in criminal evidence, cautioned that having a panel of appointed experts could lead to "miscarriages of justice".

For instance, a psychiatrist may be unwilling to state his honest but controversial view for fear that he may appear to lack objectivity and lose his place on the panel, he said.

Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan believes that to be fair and balanced, the selection committee should comprise lawyers, judges, deputy public prosecutors and psychiatrists from both the public and private sectors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'Proposal to regulate psychiatric expert evidence raises concern'. Print Edition | Subscribe