'Everyone has right to choose a lawyer'

Over the years, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said he had acted for people "whose conduct will not be approved of by the general public".
Over the years, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said he had acted for people "whose conduct will not be approved of by the general public".PHOTO: GOV.SG/YOUTUBE

Accused persons have the right to get a lawyer of their choice, and lawyers should not be made to feel that they will be hounded online for taking up certain cases, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

He stressed that the rule of law depends, among other things, on lawyers being able to act for defendants regardless of the offences they are accused of.

"Even a child rapist is entitled to his day in court and to be defended. It doesn't mean that we or the lawyer defending the person approves of child rape," he said.

Mr Shanmugam was replying in Parliament to a question from Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who had asked about the minister's stand on people's comments on the City Harvest Church case, which involved the misuse of church funds.

Some claimed that Mr Edwin Tong, a People's Action Party MP who acted as the defence lawyer for church founder Kong Hee, had helped Kong and the other accused get off with light sentences.

Last week, the Court of Appeal dismissed a bid by the prosecution to reinstate the original convictions of Kong and five other City Harvest leaders. They had been given between 21 months and eight years in jail in 2015 for criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts. But their sentences were cut after the High Court reduced their criminal breach of trust charge to a less serious one last April.

Mr Shanmugam also shared his personal experience yesterday to make the point that defendants have the right to choose a lawyer. He said he had acted both for and against the three prime ministers of Singapore as a practising lawyer.

In 1995, the International Herald Tribune (IHT) was sued for libel by Singapore's top three political leaders at the time - Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The newspaper asked Mr Shanmugam to represent it even though he was a PAP MP.

Senior Minister Lee, who pointed out Mr Shanmugam had been close to the three leaders, said then that IHT's choice of lawyer was "the highest tribute to the integrity of the counsel" and "possibly reflected also on the integrity of the Government".

Over the years, Mr Shanmugam said he had acted for people "whose conduct will not be approved of by the general public".

He said the "mob mentality" to hound lawyers and intimidate them into not taking on cases that others disapprove of was "shameful".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2018, with the headline ''Everyone has right to choose a lawyer''. Print Edition | Subscribe