Small firms excel in criminal law

Trident Law, Eugene Thuraisingam score 5-star ratings, beating bigger firms on list

In the Kovan double murder case, lawyer Peter Ong Lip Cheng agreed to submit former cop Iskandar Rahmat's clemency petition after other lawyers declined.
In the Kovan double murder case, lawyer Peter Ong Lip Cheng agreed to submit former cop Iskandar Rahmat's clemency petition after other lawyers declined.ST FILE PHOTO

Small firms and sole proprietors showed they can do better than the big firms in criminal law.

Of the 15 firms named in the criminal law category of the ST Best Law Firms 2021 list, the top two are small firms - Trident Law Corporation and Eugene Thuraisingam LLP. And the two are the only firms, big or small, to achieve five-star ratings.

"It is not so much that small firms or sole proprietors cannot do the type of work that the big firms do or vice versa. Most of the time, big firms do not take on criminal matters where the clients are not well-resourced," said a spokesman for Trident Law.

"In particular, this may be the case for pro bono matters such as those under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences.

"When small firms or sole proprietors take on such pro bono matters, they have gone on to achieve landmark decisions, often after lengthy trials."

She added: "When you look at the number of landmark cases that have been handled by small/sole proprietor firms in the criminal space, it is evident that it is not so much the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog that matters."

The firm's principal managing director, Mr R. Thrumurgan, said: "Criminal practice is a challenging area of the law with defence counsels having to battle with the vast resources of the State coupled with the limited resources of their clients. This requires criminal lawyers to go many extra miles. Over the years, Trident Law is one such law firm that has continuously gone the distance for its clients."

The firm recently defended Azlin Arujunah who, together with her husband, was accused of having the common intention of murdering their son. While accused persons invariably seek to testify in their own defence, Trident Law consultant Thangavelu and his team made a strategic, albeit difficult, decision not to call Azlin as a witness in her own defence.

The court eventually acquitted the couple of murder and convicted them of reduced charges.

The prosecution is appealing against the acquittal which is pending, said Azlin's appeal lawyer Amarick Gill, who is assisted by lawyer Cheryl Ng.

Veteran lawyer Peter Ong Lip Cheng started his own law practice some 18 months ago, making it the newest law firm to have made the list of the best criminal law firms.

"In criminal cases, it is the performance of the individual lawyer that matters, not so much the group or firm he comes from," he said.

Citing past examples of outstanding individuals in criminal law like Mr David Marshall and Mr Subhas Anandan, Mr Ong noted that this is also suggested in the way litigation documents are signed off in the course of a case. "In criminal cases, the lawyer signs in his name, while in civil cases, it is usually signed in the firm's name."

He also said some criminal briefs may be unpopular and draw abuse on the lawyer who takes the case. He recalled when he was asked to submit the clemency petition for former police officer Iskandar Rahmat - convicted of the Kovan Road double murder - because other lawyers declined the assignment.

He agreed to do it, though other lawyers had cautioned him that Iskandar might find fault or make a complaint against him if he did not feel the lawyer was doing all he could. "I was aware of this, interviewed him over several sessions in preparing the petition and we got along without difficulty."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2020, with the headline 'Small firms excel in criminal law'. Print Edition | Subscribe