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Tributes pour in for the late 'Lion of Criminal Bar'

A copy of Mr Naresh Mahtani's tribute to Mr Fernando, who was his first mentor in legal practice. It was published in the Law Society's Law Gazette in May. The late Mr Leo Fernando (seated) during a dinner hosted by lawyer Naresh Mahtani (second from
The late Mr Leo Fernando (seated) during a dinner hosted by lawyer Naresh Mahtani (second from right) and the "Leo Alumni Group", which comprises people who had once worked with Mr Fernando. The veteran lawyer was in legal practice for some 45 years.PHOTO: COURTESY OF NARESH MAHTANI
Mr Fernando during his younger days. He is survived by his 85-year-old wife, seven children and 16 grandchildren.
Mr Fernando during his younger days. He is survived by his 85-year-old wife, seven children and 16 grandchildren.PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETER FERNANDO

Lawyer Leo Fernando, once a police officer, was known for many prominent capital cases

Mighty oaks, it is said, from little acorns grow.

Thus it was of veteran lawyer Leo Fernando, who died on Sept 15 at the age of 85.

While tributes and accolades poured in for this Lion of the Criminal Bar at his funeral last week, the late Mr Fernando's legal practice of about 45 years would perhaps never have kicked off had he not survived the ordeal of a court case in which he was cleared.

Then a police officer, he faced a criminal complaint in 1959 for causing hurt to a fiery cab driver convicted of fighting with his passengers and attacking Inspector Fernando, who had arrived at the scene.

The case against him went all the way to the Court of Appeal, where the Chief Justice, Sir Alan Rose, acquitted him of the allegation.

"What can be said is that if (his lawyer) Karthigesu had not persuaded Chief Justice Rose all those years ago that the then Inspector Fernando was not guilty of assault, the Criminal Bar would have lost a great defender," recounted senior lawyer Niru Pillai, in a biography on the life and legacy of Judge of Appeal M. Karthigesu, that is due to be published. Mr Niru believed the acquittal sparked the fire in Mr Fernando to become a lawyer.

"He had seen the law as a policeman. He had seen it as an accused. He had seen justice in action when he was acquitted on what must have been to him an unfair charge. He decided to pursue law," said Mr Niru.

A copy of Mr Naresh Mahtani's tribute to Mr Fernando, who was his first mentor in legal practice. It was published in the Law Society's Law Gazette in May. The late Mr Leo Fernando (seated) during a dinner hosted by lawyer Naresh Mahtani (second from
A copy of Mr Naresh Mahtani’s tribute to Mr Fernando, who was his first mentor in legal practice. It was published in the Law Society’s Law Gazette in May. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NARESH MAHTANI

At age 32, and a father of six children, Mr Fernando left for London to read law. He began practice as a criminal lawyer in 1967 and started his own firm 10 years later.

Mr Niru, 65, who used to consult Mr Fernando and refer criminal cases to him in the 1980s, said: "I had tremendous respect for him and his character reminded me of a lionhearted man whose motto was 'Never fear, just do your best'. He came across not only as a good lawyer but also a good human being."

Mr Fernando's record spoke for itself. His prominent capital cases included one in which he teamed up with Mr David Marshall, who became Singapore's first chief minister, to convince the Court of Appeal to set aside the murder conviction of Ong Kiang Kek in 1970. Ong had been sentenced to the gallows for having shot to death a motorcyclist. But there had been three others with him in the car and the court held that the evidence was not sufficient to support the conviction.

In 1985, he defended a 21-year-old robber originally facing triple murder charges following an armed robbery in Andrew Road, but had the charge reduced to armed robbery after it emerged that he helped a tutor and child escape from his accomplice and was not involved in the killings but had intended only to rob.

Mr Fernando's son, Mr Peter Fernando, also a lawyer, recalled that in the first decade of his father's practice, he obtained about 20 consecutive successes in defending clients against criminal charges.

In 1988, he defended a criminal law detainee charged with murdering a fellow inmate at Changi's medium-security prison and his efforts saw the charge reduced to manslaughter.

Senior lawyer Naresh Mahtani, in a tribute in the May issue of the Law Society's Law Gazette to Mr Fernando - his first mentor in legal practice - listed three lessons from his mentor among the many which have stood him "in good stead" during his legal career: "the importance of courage; being well-prepared in the interesting little details of every case; and maintaining a sense of humour (which is essential for surviving in the often challenging and sombre world of legal disputes)".

Mr Fernando, who died in hospital of a heart attack, is survived by his 85-year-old wife, seven children and 16 grandchildren.

At the funeral service last week at the Church of St Mary of the Angels, his grandson Ryan Yuen, 29, shared an indelible memory with the congregation.

He said: "I remember walking with my granddad as a kid... He once passed a barefoot beggar and he looked at his own feet and shook his head, and then gave him some money and we walked away.

"Later, I asked him about it and he said his shoes were too small for the beggar or he would have given him his shoes.

"I said the shoes were expensive leather shoes and he replied: 'The greater you become, the more humble you should be.'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Tributes pour in for the late 'Lion of Criminal Bar''. Print Edition | Subscribe