Deputy A-G Hri Kumar Nair moots fixed sentencing discounts to resolve cases more efficiently

Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair said a tiered system of fixed sentencing discounts would provide the certainty and the motivation for people to plead guilty at an earlier stage.
Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair said a tiered system of fixed sentencing discounts would provide the certainty and the motivation for people to plead guilty at an earlier stage.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A structured framework that gives specified sentencing discounts, depending on the stage of criminal proceedings at which an accused person pleads guilty, can allow cases to be wrapped up more quickly, said Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair.

He floated this idea to move cases along expeditiously in his opening address on the second day of the 4th Criminal Law Conference on Thursday (March 7).

A tiered system of fixed sentencing discounts would provide the certainty and the motivation for people to plead guilty at an earlier stage, he said.

Such a framework has been implemented in Britain and Hong Kong, he added. In Hong Kong, the discount is one-third if the accused pleads guilty at the committal stage, when a magistrate decides there is sufficient evidence for a trial, one-quarter up to the first day of trial and one-fifth on the first day of trial.

In his speech, Mr Nair made the case that the efficient resolution of cases is a necessary condition of justice.

"The guilty can hardly be punished or the innocent acquitted without a punctual conclusion to their cases," he said.

Delays, he said, mean lack of closure for victims, stress for accused persons, and fading memories for witnesses. They also drain prosecutorial and judicial resources, he said.

Despite efforts to expedite case resolution, two key hurdles remain, he said.

One is the occurrence of "cracked" trials, when an accused person pleads guilty at the start of trial. This happens in one out of five trials, he said, wasting courts' time and the prosecution's efforts in preparing for trial.

A more serious hindrance, he said, are vexatious litigants who abuse the court process by pursuing applications without merit.

Mr Nair put forward three other ideas which he said were worth exploring for a more efficient and just system.

He suggested a dual-track system, which channels cases involving relatively minor offences into a simplified process that shortens pre-trial proceedings and encourages more upfront disclosure. This can avoid "cracked" trials.

For minor offences with clear sentencing guidelines, he proposed that the prosecution can give an early indication of the sentence it would be seeking. This would help the accused make an informed assessment about whether he wanted to go to trial.

Mr Nair said one way in which justice can be more punctually secured is by ensuring that resources are proportionally allocated to each case.

"We should avoid the situation where we expend a substantial amount of resources just to move the sentencing needle marginally, which is what happens for minor offences. In short, the demands of justice should fit the crime," he said.

Mr Nair said it would also be helpful if there are more sentencing guidelines, either by way of court judgments or, as practised in Britain, the formation of a standalone sentencing council.

The sentencing framework laid down for drink driving in 2013 by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has expedited the resolution of such cases, noted Mr Nair.

Turning to instances of abuse of process, he said the prosecution will not hesitate to ask the court to order costs against accused persons and defence counsel who conduct themselves unreasonably.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the Ministry of Law said it will study and consider the proposals raised by Mr Nair, as part of the process to review criminal laws.