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 speech at the 4th Criminal Law Conference yesterday. A tiered system of fixed sentencing discounts would provide certainty and 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 a lack of closure for victims, stress for accused persons, and fading memories for witnesses. 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 the trial, wasting the courts' time and the prosecution's efforts in preparing for trial.
A more serious hindrance, he said, are those who abuse the court process by pursuing applications without merit.
Mr Nair put forward three other ideas which he said were worth exploring. He suggested a dual-track system, with a simplified process for relatively minor offences that shortens pre-trial proceedings.
There should also be an early indication of the sentence sought by the prosecution for minor offences with clear sentencing guidelines, to help the accused assess whether he wants to go to trial.
NEED FOR PUNCTUAL CONCLUSION
The guilty can hardly be punished or the innocent acquitted without a punctual conclusion to their cases.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY-GENERAL HRI KUMAR NAIR, on how the efficient resolution of cases is a necessary condition of justice.
"We should avoid the situation where we expend a substantial amount of resources just to move the sentencing needle marginally," he said.
Mr Nair also called for more sentencing guidelines. The sentencing framework laid down for drink driving in 2013 by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has expedited the resolution of such cases, he noted.
Turning to abuse of process, he said the prosecution will not hesitate to ask the court to order costs against those who conduct themselves unreasonably.
The Ministry of Law told The Straits Times it will study and consider the proposals.
Ideas for more efficient justice system
Four suggestions for a more efficient criminal justice system have been put forward by Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair:
1 A dual-track system that channels relatively minor offences into a simplified process, to ensure time and cost savings. This could shorten pre-trial proceedings and encourage upfront disclosure of parties' positions, to avoid the occurrence of "cracked" trials.
2 An early indication of sentencing positions for minor offences, where there are clear guidelines for sentencing, can shorten the process.
When the prosecution tells the accused, at an early stage in the proceedings, what sentence it would be seeking, this may help the accused make an informed assessment as to whether he wants to incur delay and expense in going for trial.
3 More definitive sentencing guidelines can encourage speedy resolution by narrowing the range of outcomes and providing clarity.
This can be by way of more guideline judgments or the formation of a standalone sentencing council.
4 A framework of fixed sentencing discounts to encourage timely pleas of guilt so that cases can be concluded sooner. The quantum of discounts is pegged to the stage of proceedings at which the accused pleads guilty.