The High Court ordered a retrial for a shipping executive fined $240,000 for foreign labour offences, in a case which clarified the scope of the law as to when an accused person can retract his guilty plea.
Dinesh Ranjantheran, 31, had initially admitted to the charges in the State Courts but, when called to mitigate before sentencing, chose to retract his guilty plea and deny all charges. This was done in his mitigation plea.
Justice Chua Lee Ming, in judgment grounds last week, held the retraction was valid, noting it was done before he was sentenced.
In setting aside the conviction and sending the case back to the State Courts, he said the court was bound by Section 228(4) of the Criminal Procedure Code to reject the guilty plea.
Under this section in the law, where an accused person raises any matter in his mitigation that materially affects any legal condition required to constitute the offence charged, the court has to reject his guilty plea.
Dinesh had pleaded guilty in April to 20 charges, under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, of taking $2,000 from each of 20 foreign workers as a condition of their employment. He admitted to an amended statement of facts and accepted 43 similar charges to be taken into consideration for sentencing purposes.
But after the conviction, he switched lawyers. He then applied to retract his guilty plea and sought to resume the trial. The State Court judge rejected his application after hearing from both his lawyer, Mr Peter Fernando, as well as the Manpower Ministry prosecuting officers.
When the hearing later resumed, Mr Fernando reproduced in his mitigation the same grounds for retracting the guilty plea. Dinesh disputed the allegations against him in the statement of facts and his charges.
Number of foreign workers Dinesh Ranjantheran allegedly took $2,000 from.
The judge dismissed the mitigation as "a backdoor way to turn back the clock" and "abuse of process" to force the court to reject his initial guilty plea. He rejected the move and fined Dinesh $240,000 and ordered him to repay a further $40,000 taken from the workers.
Mr Fernando then applied to the High Court for a criminal revision to set aside the conviction on the ground the mitigation plea had qualified the plea of guilt in relation to all the charges.
Justice Chua made clear the court's power of criminal revision to set aside convictions may be exercised "only sparingly".
He held that a "qualified plea is in fact a plea of not guilty and therefore a mitigation plea that qualifies a plea of guilty is a retraction of the earlier plea".
"As the applicant's mitigation plea did qualify his plea of guilty, the court below ought to have rejected his plea of guilty," said Justice Chua. The judge noted that the relevant law kicked in as the plea retraction occurred before he was sentenced.
The prosecution is referring the case to the Court of Appeal for its decision on questions of law of public interest.
It seeks to clarify if an accused person can indeed retract a guilty plea at the mitigation stage of the sentencing based on the cited law.
It also wants to know if the person has to convince the court he has enough valid reasons to retract his guilty plea before the court can reject his guilty plea at the mitigation stage.
Dinesh is currently out on $20,000 bail pending the outcome of the case.