Judge explains why he refused request for QC

Church leader's case not complex and S'pore lawyer perfectly capable, he says

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A JUDGE yesterday explained why he refused to allow one of the City Harvest Church leaders to appoint an elite British lawyer.

Fund manager Chew Eng Han does not need a Queen's Counsel (QC) to defend him in the multi-million-dollar corruption case, said Judge of Appeal V. K. Rajah.

This is because the Singaporean lawyer who is already representing him is perfectly capable of doing the job.

Justice Rajah added that the case against Chew is not complex or convoluted and could be understood by a competent local counsel.

The 52-year-old is one of six church leaders charged with conspiring to cheat their organisation of several millions of dollars.

They are alleged to have funnelled $24 million into sham bond investments to further the music career of senior pastor Kong Hee's pop-singer wife. Another $26.6 million was then allegedly misappropriated to cover up the misuse of the first sum.

Chew had sought the admission of London-based QC Jonathan Caplan.

The elite British lawyers, or their equivalent from other countries, are allowed to take on cases in the Singapore courts only when special circumstances arise.

These include complex factual and legal issues or a lack of available Senior Counsel (SC), the local equivalent of QCs.

Last year, the law was changed to make it easier for lawyers from countries such as Britain and Australia to be appointed on an ad-hoc basis in commercial and civil cases. Chew's application was keenly watched as it was the first in a criminal trial since the new rules were introduced. Last month, the High Court rejected his bid.

In his judgment grounds released yesterday, Justice Rajah said that when Parliament changed the law, it had intended to liberalise the way lawyers were hired in the commercial sector only.

A QC or foreign SC seeking admission in a criminal case had to show a "special reason", which meant there were exceptional circumstances. The court also had to weigh this against whether any local lawyers with the appropriate experience were available.

Chew claimed he had tried to hire seven local SCs at various points, but they all declined to defend him for various reasons. His lawyer, Mr P.E. Ashokan, added that the religious dimensions in the trial added a novel and unique point of law, which justified a QC's presence.

But the court was not convinced this was an exceptional case. "What is exceptional should be decided based on the facts and circumstance of each case," said Justice Rajah. "For example, an individual may be able to establish that his case is exceptional if he can prove that despite all reasonable efforts conscientiously made, he cannot find any competent local counsel to represent him."

The judge made clear that even if a large number of people follow the trial closely, "it does not necessarily mean that legal matters of a public interest arise. Interest manifested by the public in a matter is not equivalent to a legal matter of public interest arising". He added that the charges were essentially "fact-sensitive" and involved issues that were not "so convoluted and esoteric as to be beyond the comprehension of competent local counsel".

Mr Christopher Ong, representing the Public Prosecutor, said questions of ecclesiastical law would not arise in the trial. He pointed out that the prosecution is not taking issue with how the church used its funds as an evangelical tool.

Instead, the case centres on how money was allegedly used to support the career of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun. Justice Rajah found that the factual and legal issues in the case were not complex enough to justify a QC's presence. There was also a substantial number of "more than competent" local lawyers and SCs available to defend Chew.

The judge added that Mr Ashokan and other lawyers from legal firm KhattarWong "are perfectly capable of handling (his) defence".

He said Chew was to blame for apparently running out of time to look for a suitable lawyer. This is because he "failed to make reasonably conscientious efforts to secure the services of competent local counsel from the available pool".

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