A 44-year-old woman was yesterday allowed to retract her guilty plea for ill-treating three pet dogs after the court accepted her contention that she had been pressured to plead guilty.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, after examining the circumstances leading to Chng Leng Khim pleading guilty in February, ruled that she had done so after her former lawyer told her she may be remanded at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) if she claimed trial.
The lawyer, who was asked to file a statutory declaration to give his account of events, did not deny having said this. Mr Ravinderpal Singh said this was in reply to Chng's question after he told her he could not act for her if she claimed trial.
Mr Singh said Chng had asked him what would happen if she was unable to give evidence. The lawyer said he told her the court has the power to to remand her at the IMH to assess if she was able to testify.
Yesterday, CJ Menon asked why the lawyer had raised this possibility, as the court's power was related to accused persons who may be mentally unfit to testify.
Mr Singh said Chng looked "a little bit depressed" then and he worried if she was in the state of mind to follow court proceedings.
CJ Menon said he saw no reason why the lawyer had raised the issue of mental soundness. "Perhaps something was lost in their exchange," he said. But to Chng, the suggestion that one possible consequence of not pleading guilty was to be remanded at IMH would have been an "alarming" one, he added.
"In my judgment, this was a sufficiently disturbing prospect and, in the particular circumstances of this case, it did unfairly deprive the appellant of her freedom to choose between pleading guilty and pleading not guilty," said CJ Menon.
He noted that the events took place against the backdrop of Chng having repeatedly "expressed sustained misgivings over pleading guilty" and vacillated on her plea.
CJ Menon set aside Chng's conviction and sent the case back to the State Courts for trial. "It may be that claiming trial turns out to be a wholly ill-conceived course of action but, ultimately, it is the appellant's entitlement to claim trial if she wishes to do so," he said.
"She may succeed at trial or she might fail. If she fails at trial, it might conceivably result in a stiffer sentence being imposed than that which has been meted out."
Chng was given 10 days' jail and a fine of $3,100 in February on charges linked to her dogs, including two counts of animal cruelty.
After moving out of her Paya Lebar home, she allegedly left behind a bull mastiff and a chow chow. Both were ill and thin, infested with ticks, and surrounded by their urine and faeces when found. An emaciated and tick-infested poodle found near the house was traced back to her via a microchip.
The chow chow and poodle were rehomed, but the bull mastiff had to be euthanised.