MHA studying if Appropriate Adult scheme can be expanded to cover suspects aged 16 and 17

A screengrab from a video on the Minds website on how an appropriate adult volunteer would assist during an investigation. PHOTO: MINDS

SINGAPORE - Under the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS), a trained adult accompanies young suspects aged below 16 during law enforcement interviews.

Following a mother's call to reform the protocols when interviewing young suspects or those with mental health issues after her 17-year-old son died while he was facing drug-related charges, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said on Friday (Oct 22) it is studying whether to expand coverage of the AAYS.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, MHA said: "We have been studying if we should expand the coverage for AAYS to include suspects aged 16 and 17."

Ms Cecilia Ow, 51, had written a letter to Minister of Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam on Oct 1 urging for a separate unit in the police force to be set up and trained to deal with young offenders.

Her son, Justin, who had a history of persistent depressive disorder, died on Sept 16 from a fall from height while he was out on bail for drug trafficking.

Invictus Law managing director Josephus Tan believes that the AAYS should cover all accused persons under the age of 21, in line with the judicial stance of helping young offenders and not just punishing them as seen in the Community Court.

"If the AA scheme was conceptualised to assist young persons, the mentally unwell, or both, then perhaps it's pivotal to cast a wider age net to make sure that none of them slips through," said Mr Tan.

Appropriate adults (AAs) are also available for mentally vulnerable persons.

They watch for signs of distress, support the emotional well-being of a person, and assist in communications, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) website.

Responding to queries from ST, MSF said that there are currently 331 AAs for young suspects and 320 volunteers for the mentally vulnerable.

The AAs for young suspects were activated 2,082 times in the financial year between April 2019 and March 2020; 2,048 times in FY2020; and 1,180 times from April to September this year.

The AAs for the mentally vulnerable were activated 475 times in FY2019, 496 times in FY2020 and 334 times from April to September this year.

Mr Tan said the firm has heard inconsistencies, where some suspects with mental illnesses, young persons, or both were not given an AA during the recording of statements, or the AA was made available only at a later stage of the statement recording.

"It is also unclear as to how or whether an AA is activated by the police should an accused person inform them about his or her mental disorder without showing medical proof at the first instance," he said.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University's law faculty suggested that the AAYS age limit be extended to those under the age of 18, and that parents be briefed on what had been done while their child was in custody, without compromising investigations.

"We (are) not dealing with a hardened criminal and law enforcement cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach in the management and care of people undergoing law enforcement interviews," said Prof Tan.

He pointed out that the courts recognise rehabilitative justice as being crucial for young offenders and those with mental health issues, and added: "Our law enforcement agencies must appreciate that rehabilitation of an offender often starts with them. How we treat young suspects in trouble with the law reflects whether we are indeed a progressive and caring society.

"Being in trouble with the law cannot and must not lead a young person to think his is a hopeless case."

Quahe Woo & Palmer's head of the criminal department, Mr Sunil Sudheesan, pointed out that the AAYS was created to protect the investigation process, and not just suspects.

"The AA is the independent set of eyes to protect investigating officers and suspects alike," said Mr Sudheesan, who urged parents of young suspects to engage criminal lawyers early so that they can help them with the case and point them to a mental health practitioner.

He said Justin's case has highlighted the need to provide support to vulnerable suspects not only during interviews but also after they have been concluded, and the police might not be best suited to offer this support.

"Ideally an institution which has the subject matter expertise in dealing with suspects with mental health issues might be more appropriate to offer support to such accused persons after the interview stage. Instinctively the police are not that organisation, but perhaps one with more social workers and mental health experts."

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