Ex-CJ urges criminal lawyers to be more positive about their role

Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin (left), who contributed to a book on advocacy, autographing a copy for another contributor, Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim.
Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin (left), who contributed to a book on advocacy, autographing a copy for another contributor, Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim.PHOTO: SINGAPORE ACADEMY OF LAW

In new book, he dispels perception that criminal process favours prosecution

Dispelling the "unfortunate" perception that the criminal process unduly favours the prosecution, former chief justice Chan Sek Keong urged criminal lawyers to be more positive about their role in criminal justice, pointing out that the high conviction rate does not detract from the social value of their work.

Criminal practice can "be demoralising and soul-destroying if defence counsel feels that he can never win a case because the criminal justice system is stacked against him", wrote Mr Chan in a new book.

" While this is untrue, it is unfortunately the common perception of the criminal Bar."

Modern Advocacy More Perspectives From Singapore, by Academy Publishing, was launched yesterday by Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang. Essays on different aspects of advocacy were contributed by legal leading lights such as Senior Judge Chao Hick Tin, Judicial Commissioner Mavis Chionh, Senior Counsel Lee Eng Beng and Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim, among others.

Mr Chan shares his experience in Lessons From A Lacklustre Litigation Practice.

Among other things, he counsels: "Some of us are born with tongues which are glib, and some are born with tongues which evolve a fork.

"However, in the current litigation environment, such ungentle persuasion will find no traction with our judges and arbitrators."

Underscoring the role of criminal lawyers, Mr Chan said their submissions are in themselves a check on the prosecutor's conduct and the judge is there to maintain the balance with an even hand.

Underscoring the role of criminal lawyers, Mr Chan said their submissions are in themselves a check on the prosecutor's conduct and the judge is there to maintain the balance with an even hand.

"Our criminal justice system does not tolerate arbitrary or capricious prosecutions. Prosecutors often make mistakes but they do not abuse their powers," he said.

Mr Chan said his own record of judging criminal trials should provide a counterpoint to the "dystopian views of our less successful and dispirited criminal lawyers".

"My conviction or acquittal rate for capital cases should be around 50/50," said Mr Chan, noting that convictions in capital cases are closely scrutinised on appeal, however the appeal is argued, and even when the offender does not wish to appeal.

Lawyers contacted said one reason for the perception was the inequality of resources and limitations between the prosecution and defence, but they added that the authorities were paying attention to this.

Lawyer Choo Zheng Xi said few clients have the resources to pay full rates for trials and appeals, and the reality is that his commercial court litigation cross-subsidises his criminal practice.

Association of Criminal Lawyers Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan said earlier disclosures, especially of sentencing positions, would help settle cases more promptly.

Lawyer Diana Ngiam suggested that more could be achieved in terms of levelling the playing field for the accused.

"Nevertheless, there have been steps taken by our courts and our legislators to level the playing field for accused persons and I am heartened that we are moving in the right direction."


How nun's letter helped court case

Judging for capital offences places a particularly heavy burden on judges, said former chief justice Chan Sek Keong, as he shared an example of an acquittal which he heard together with Justice Lai Kew Chai in the High Court in 1988.

The case involved a young airline ground employee who was tried for the murder of a young New Zealand woman who was on transit in Singapore from Tel Aviv to New Zealand.

He befriended her and, the next day, took her on a tour of the city. As they walked along Beach Road, she remarked on a block of flats in the area. When he asked if she would like to go to the top to view the surroundings, she agreed. What happened subsequently on the top floor was that she either jumped or was thrown. Her body was found lying on the ground.

He was charged with murder but the court, after due process, rejected all his oral and written "confessions". The court also found there was objective evidence which showed the prosecution's case was not sustainable on the merits of the charge.

After considering other evidence and expert testimony, the court acquitted the accused without calling for his defence.

Mr Chan said part of the relevant evidence submitted by the defence lawyer showed the thoroughness of preparation by a good defence lawyer. For instance, it was brought to the court's attention that a relative of the dead woman had committed suicide. This came to light because the defence lawyer had probed if there had been a family history of suicide.

The prosecution filed an appeal but some weeks later, Mr Chan received a letter from a nun in Tel Aviv who said she had read about the murder trial.

She wrote that she had met the woman in Tel Aviv and the woman had disclosed that she was very unhappy and depressed, and showed signs of unstable behaviour, as she had recently broken up with her boyfriend. The nun said she felt the Singapore authorities should know about their meeting.

"I showed the letter to Justice Lai and said this was an amazing disclosure. The Registrar sent the letter to the Public Prosecutor and the appeal was withdrawn within a week," said Mr Chan in the book.

A check by The Straits Times showed the lawyer was Mr Sant Singh, who is now a Senior Counsel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline 'Ex-CJ urges criminal lawyers to be more positive about their role'. Print Edition | Subscribe