THE application by City Harvest Church (CHC) member Chew Eng Han (above) for an elite British lawyer to defend him was rejected yesterday.
That leaves him with just two months to find a lawyer for the high-profile trial, which is slated to begin on May 6.
Said Justice V.K. Rajah, who, in rejecting the application to admit Queen's Counsel (QC) Jonathan Caplan, noted the shorter time left for the defendant to look for a lawyer: "Chew is the sole author of this predicament."
The 52-year-old Chew, who had told The Straits Times last week that he believed he had "a compelling case", was expressionless when the judgment was read.
Later, when asked what his next step would be, Chew admitted that he had "no concrete plan".
"I don't know where to search," he said.
Chew is one of six CHC leaders charged last June with conspiring to cheat the church by funnelling $24 million into sham investments to further the career of senior pastor Kong Hee's pop-singer wife, and then misappropriating another $26.6 million to cover up the misuse of the first sum.
Yesterday, Justice Rajah gave several reasons for dismissing Chew's application for a QC, who may be admitted here when the case is complex, involves novel points of law, and when no local legal experts are available.
He agreed with Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong that the CHC case was straightforward, not complex. Either the usage of funds was "genuine" or there was "window dressing", he said.
He added that the case also did not involve the appropriateness of religious doctrines or practices, and did not have wider ramifications for those working in fund management or financial sectors.
And while the documents involved in this case were voluminous, they were not beyond the understanding of local counsel, said Justice Rajah.
Chew's lawyer P.E. Ashokan argued on Monday that his client had approached several Senior Counsel (SC) here, including SC Amarjeet Singh and SC Michael Hwang, to take up his case, but all of them declined.
Justice Rajah found Chew's efforts "neither objectively reasonable nor conscientious". He said that several of the SC approached had either not been seen in local courts for a considerable time or were no longer doing court work.
He felt that Chew ought to have cast his net wider to include "other experienced counsel", and not just SC, as there was a "substantial number of more than competent counsel" who could represent him.
Chew told The Straits Times that he had sought out only SC because "it's natural when somebody is fighting for his life, to look for the best". But in the light of the judgment, he said: "I have no choice. I have to be open to anything."
He said he would also ask for a postponement of trial dates if the need arose.
There may already be hope for Chew. Said Mr Ashokan, who helped him make the QC application: "There is a possibility I could represent him."