Guilty plea 'can be retracted during mitigation'

An accused person who has pleaded guilty can change his mind during mitigation without having to give valid and sufficient reasons for doing an about-turn, as long as the court is satisfied that there is no abuse of process. PHOTO: ST FILE
An accused person who has pleaded guilty can change his mind during mitigation without having to give valid and sufficient reasons for doing an about-turn, as long as the court is satisfied that there is no abuse of process. PHOTO: ST FILEPHOTO: ST FILE

An accused person who has pleaded guilty can change his mind during mitigation without having to give valid and sufficient reasons for doing an about-turn, as long as the court is satisfied that there is no abuse of process.

The Court of Appeal made this ruling yesterday, after the prosecution raised legal questions on whether the courts are bound by law to reject a guilty plea when an accused person seeks to retract the plea at the mitigation stage.

The court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Judith Prakash and Steven Chong, will issue detailed grounds at a later date.

The prosecution argued that allowing people to retract their plea during mitigation without good reason will undermine the efficiency of, and allow people to game the criminal justice system.

The case concerns a provision in the Criminal Procedure Code that imposes a duty on the court to reject a guilty plea if any matter raised in mitigation disputes any element of the offence.

The issue arose in the case of Dinesh Rajantheran, a senior executive who is accused of receiving $2,000 from each of 63 foreign workers, as a condition for their employment.

Dinesh initially claimed trial but on the second day of the hearing in April last year, he pleaded guilty. The case was adjourned for mitigation, but Dinesh then changed lawyers.

The Court of Appeal made this ruling yesterday, after the prosecution raised legal questions on whether the courts are bound by law to reject a guilty plea when an accused person seeks to retract the plea at the mitigation stage.

His new lawyer argued to retract his guilty plea and resume the trial but the trial judge did not allow him to do so.

His lawyer then submitted a "mitigation plea", a reproduction of his arguments for the plea retraction that disputed the material allegations against him.

The trial judge described this as "a backdoor way to turn back the clock" to force the court to reject the guilty plea, as mandated by law. Calling the move an abuse of process, the trial judge refused to reject the guilty plea.

Dinesh then applied to the High Court for his conviction to be set aside.

The High Court agreed with him and ruled that when an accused person retracts his plea of "guilty" and disputes elements of the offence in mitigation, the court is bound to reject the plea.

The prosecution then filed a criminal reference to the Court of Appeal, asking it to determine whether the provision applied in such circumstances and whether a person seeking to retract his plea has to give valid and sufficient reasons.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Kow Keng Siong argued that in order to reverse his guilty plea, an accused person has to provide grounds, such as if he had been under pressure to do so.

If a guilty plea can be retracted "on a whim" without good reason, he added, there would be more aborted cases, resulting in delays and a waste of resources.

It would also give an accused person a "tactical" advantage as he would have been shown a more detailed account of the prosecution's case, said the DPP.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2019, with the headline 'Guilty plea 'can be retracted during mitigation''. Print Edition | Subscribe