Court boots out claims of trafficker against lawyers

The High Court found no merit in a convicted drug trafficker's claim that three defence lawyers had failed to present his case according to his instructions during his trial.

Justice Hoo Sheau Peng held that there was only one limited issue which had no effect in the conviction of Ranjit Singh Gill for drug trafficking. "There is no merit to the complaint that his instructions were ignored," said the judge in her findings last week.

Ranjit Singh Gill, a Malaysian self-employed driver who was then 42, was found guilty of trafficking in 35.21g of heroin and sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane in 2016.

The public prosecutor had issued a certificate of substantive assistance by him and he was found to be a courier, which allowed the court the discretion to impose the alternative sentence in lieu of the death penalty.

At his trial, he was defended by three lawyers led by Mr Singa Retnam. At his appeal to the top court, he was represented by a new set of lawyers led by Mr Bachoo Mohan Singh.

In that appeal hearing last year, he sought permission to introduce further evidence of his personal and financial circumstances to show he had no reason to carry drugs into Singapore.

After receiving submissions from him and his previous lawyers, the apex court sent the matter back to Justice Hoo to consider any additional evidence on the narrow question of whether his case at trial had been presented as he had instructed.

The judge was also tasked to determine if the additional evidence had any effect on the earlier verdict.

At the five-day hearing last year, Ranjit made four main contentions, including that his previous lawyers did not argue that he was not in financial difficulties.

But Mr Retnam pointed out that Ranjit did inform a psychiatrist from the Institute of Mental Health of his financial difficulties.

In contending that Mr Retnam had ignored Ranjit's instructions, lawyer Bachoo Mohan Singh argued he had failed to consult Ranjit as he was confident of his own skills as a criminal lawyer.

But Mr Edmund Nathan, in defending Mr Retnam, countered that he had tried his best to present the case as instructed by Ranjit and decried the many allegations made to discredit Mr Retnam.

Justice Hoo found that there was no written or oral instruction from Ranjit to his previous lawyers to challenge the admissibility of statements he himself had made, contrary to his claim.

The judge said it was "telling" that when cross-examined, Ranjit admitted he did not tell Mr Retnam or second defence lawyer James Selvaraj that he wanted his financial status to be an important part of his defence.

She clarified that in convicting Ranjit, she did not rely on the evidence of his financial difficulties.

After dealing with all the allegations, Justice Hoo found that the previous lawyers, especially Mr Retnam, had presented Ranjit's case based on his instructions, and Ranjit had failed to show otherwise, "save for one limited aspect".

This related to the failure to dispute the accuracy of a portion of a statement made by Ranjit containing the word "barang" (Malay for "thing"), but the judge found this did not have any effect on the verdict, as Ranjit had conceded during his trial that the statement had been accurately recorded.

The judge agreed with deputy public prosecutors Terence Chua and Jason Chua that Ranjit is "now seeking to blame the previous lawyers for substantially failing to act in accordance with his instructions in order to strengthen his chances of getting out of his present predicament".

But Justice Hoo made clear that the many other complaints raised regarding the competency of the previous lawyers and the assistance level they rendered at the trial went beyond the scope of these proceedings, adding: "They will not be dealt with here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2019, with the headline 'Court boots out claims of trafficker against lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe