Commentary: Even criminals deserve justice - and other reasons why lawyers defend them
Being a criminal defence lawyer is more than a job – it’s also serving a sacred duty of due process, says Associate Professor Darren Koh Ngiap Thiam from the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
SINGAPORE: In August last year, Audrey Tay, daughter of the founders of a luxury watch retail chain pleaded guilty for taking drugs and causing a car crash.
She was later sentenced to 22 months in jail and fined S$1,000 for three drug charges and one charge of driving without due care or attention, and was also disqualified from driving for 18 months upon her release.
She appealed against that sentence, and her case lawyer, Eugene Thuraisingam, argued for leniency. The high court however, dismissed that appeal on Mar 15.
To many members of the public, the idea of defending a person of such notoriety may seem ridiculous. How could one defend a person like that?
But Mr Thuraisingam is no stranger to controversy. The criminal lawyer has taken plenty of high profile cases – he also defended British drug trafficker Yuen Ye Ming among others.
Like Mr Thuraisingam, many defence lawyers are often criticised for handling deplorable cases, but there are many like him who undertake such cases without the media glare.
Many readers brought up on a diet of Hong Kong and American legal dramas would have a vague idea of the role of the defence criminal lawyer: They’re the people “defending the accused” – without necessarily fully understanding what that means.
The role of the lawyer in court is to present the client’s best possible case, but that role is subject to the lawyer’s duties as an officer of the court and to assist in the administration of justice. In other words, lawyers are there to help judges reach a fair decision.
Defence lawyers are not mouthpieces for the accused. They do not just act for that one client, but uphold a sacred duty to ensure that justice is done and due process is carried out.
They have to make sure all available evidence and arguments are put before the judge, and that all such evidence and arguments are tested through rigorous questioning.
IT’S A BELIEF, NOT A JOB
So why do criminal lawyers still do it? I posed the question to a colleague of mine who was involved in a series of criminal trials involving sex crimes – and rather heinous ones at that.
It was not easy to get him to say why he chose to practice at the Criminal Bar. I suspect because nobody wanted to sound like a parrot of the Legal Profession Rules – which outline professional conduct. After much probing, he revealed what I guessed all along: It’s a calling, he said.
A belief, not a job.
It’s not about getting quoted in the media – only a few can astutely navigate the media the way Mr Thuraisingam or the late Subhas Anandan did. It is the inexplicable combination of ideals that says everyone deserves legal representation, including those accused of the most serious of crimes, that inspire defence lawyers.
For it is when no one is willing to stand with you, that you most need a lawyer.
Does the lawyer have to like his client? In the words of my colleague, “No.”
It was personally trying for him having to defend an elderly who admitted to taking advantage of minors and performing deplorable acts on them. But as challenging as it was, my colleague knew that as the old man’s legal representative, he still had to set out the client’s circumstances in mitigation. The administration of justice required it.
THE DESIRE TO HELP OTHERS
What drives most people to apply to law school may be the inexplicable desire to help others, driven by different reasons – just like how it drove my colleague to the profession.
I look at some of the current students at the Singapore University of Social Science where I work, and am reminded of what they said in their interviews with us. One mentioned how he noticed that lawyers who kept their client updated with all proceedings, and took care in explaining why steps were taken, provided their clients with great comfort.
There are also those who remarked on how poorly friends and relatives were treated by lawyers and believe at making things better.
I suppose I should leave my colleague to have the last word why he does it: “As defence counsels, we are in a privileged position to assist the accused. We are both the legal advisor as well as the listening ear to the accused during the course of his proceedings."
As we go about our role, there will be times when the accused readily admits to the offence and others who maintain that the incident did not occur or had occurred differently. Either way, we are given the unique opportunity to give voice to the accused’s version of events and to that end, do our level best that justice is administered.
He added: "Crime may not pay, but lending a helping hand to those involved, the accused included, can make a real difference to them and their families. Providing assistance where it is needed, is in itself a reward.”
Associate Professor Darren Koh Ngiap Thiam is Vice Dean and Head at the Taxation & Law Programme in the School of Law at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.