Parliament: WP's Sylvia Lim calls for reforms to criminal justice system to address shortcomings raised by Parti Liyani case

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim suggested setting up a Constitutional Commission headed by a Supreme Court judge.
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim suggested setting up a Constitutional Commission headed by a Supreme Court judge.PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) has called on the Government to adopt a two-prong approach to tackle shortcomings in Singapore's criminal justice system.

One aspect includes what she called "low hanging fruit" such as reforms to procedures involving composition fines, bail amounts, statement recording, training and the position of crime victims.

These can be addressed by the Government directly, Ms Lim, a lawyer in private practice, told Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 4).

The other aspect involves more complex issues, including constitutional matters like the question of whether the equal protection of the law under Article 12 of the Constitution is, in practice, being afforded to the poor.

For such issues, she suggested setting up a Constitutional Commission headed by a Supreme Court judge.

Ms Lim was speaking on a motion she had moved for debate on issues raised by a court case involving Ms Parti Liyani, the ex-maid of former Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong chairman Liew Mun Leong.

The motion, supported by Ms Lim's fellow WP MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC), stated: "That this House affirms that fairness, access and independence are cornerstones of Singapore's justice system, and calls on the Government to recognise and remedy its shortcomings in order to enhance justice for all, regardless of means or social status, including facilitating a review of the justice system."

On the plight of the poor in attaining justice

Ms Parti's case attracted significant public reaction and raised the question of whether Singapore's justice system puts everyone on an equal footing, Ms Lim said.

There are structural and economic impediments in attaining justice for the poor, she noted.

Poorer and less educated people are more likely to run afoul of the law because of their circumstances, Ms Lim said, and they may also have difficulty raising the resources needed to engage legal counsel, put up bail money and pay composition fines promptly.

She suggested that public agencies could consider allowing composition fines to be paid by instalment, which she said would help poorer families cope and "prevent cases from snowballing into bigger court fines, defaults and warrants of arrest".

She also suggested alternatives to money bail could be considered, such as requiring the accused person to maintain employment; abide by restrictions on personal associations, residence or travel; report regularly to a designated agency; or comply with a curfew.

"To get the police and the courts to consider such options, the Government could consider amending the Criminal Procedure Code to explicitly require consideration of non-monetary conditions."

Ms He later said existing legal aid schemes like the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and the Ad Hoc Pro Bono Referral Scheme should be enhanced. 

These schemes are limited in reach, she said, noting that there is a large number of unrepresented persons, and that pro bono legal representation largely relies on the goodwill of lawyers. 

Another WP MP, Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), said migrant workers like Ms Parti not only tend to have lower incomes but also face unique challenges like salary non-payment and unfamiliarity with Singapore’s languages, laws and customs that could deter them from reporting offences against them.

He said support services, including the provision of basic needs such as food and shelter, counselling services and help on understanding their rights, should be provided to all migrant workers who choose to make complaints against employers and find themselves without a home and a job. 

This should not be left entirely to non-government organisations which have limited resources, he added. 

Suggestions for law enforcement agencies

Ms Lim also raised concerns relating to law enforcement agencies, including the question of whether such agencies have a culture of preferring the most serious possible charges against accused persons.

"From my past experience, I also observe that some officers believed that showing moderation in the selection of charges might open them up to allegations of corruption," said Ms Lim.

"If such defensive behaviour exists today, it will lead to injustice and must be strongly discouraged."

She noted that Ms Parti's case shows problems can arise with interpretation of statements recorded in English. Ms Parti had spoken in Bahasa Indonesia and her statement was recorded with the aid of an interpreter.

Ms Lim said law enforcement agencies should at least facilitate the recording of statements in Singapore's other official languages of Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

She said the use of video or audio-recording of statements should be expanded to more cases than the current practice of using them only for serious sex crimes.

On justice for crime victims and wrongly convicted persons

Ms Lim said justice for crime victims should be highlighted in any review of the system even though it was not an issue in Ms Parti's case.

She noted that crime victims have no say in how criminal cases are conducted as it is the public prosecutor who decides which charges to press, if any.

Victims may even suffer "secondary victimisation" by the criminal justice process, Ms Lim said, such as if they are disbelieved by law enforcement or subject to ridicule by lawyers during cross-examination in court.

She further said that more needs to be done to give crime victims confidence that they will be fairly treated by the system, which "would not be able to function if victims do not come forward to assist in criminal cases".

"We need to remember that crime victims deserve justice and deserve to be treated with respect," Ms Lim added.

"We should review our justice system from the crime victim's perspective and see how it can be improved."

Ms He suggested that the statutory compensation scheme for miscarriages of justice should bolstered.

She noted that the Criminal Procedure Code allows for the acquitted person to be compensated a sum not exceeding $10,000, provided that the court is satisfied that the prosecution was frivolous or vexatious.

Said Ms He: “This qualifier does not account for how an accused person still suffers emotionally from having to go through a trial where they stand accused of a crime, and that they may also suffer financial losses or loss of income while the charge is hanging over their heads, even if the prosecution was taken out in good faith.”