Commentary: Even the worst criminals deserve fair legal representation

Commentary: Even the worst criminals deserve fair legal representation

tan hui zhen, pua hak chuan
Tan Hui Zhen (left) was sentenced to 16-and-a-half years' jail, while her husband Pua Hak Chuan received a sentence of 14 years’ jail and 14 strokes of the cane. (Photos: Singapore Police Force) 

SINGAPORE: The case of the Singaporean couple who tortured 26-year-old Annie Ee, an intellectually disabled waitress over eight months until her death, has been met with an almost visceral disgust by Singaporeans. 

Housewife Tan Hui Zhen was sentenced to 16-and-a-half years' jail, while her husband, storeman Pua Hak Chuan, received a sentence of 14 years’ jail and 14 strokes of the cane for the cruel and inhumane acts they inflicted on Ee.

It’s been a few days since sentencing, but netizens continue to pour scorn on the couple whose actions have horrified a nation.

However, scorn is also being poured on the lawyers representing the couple.

Before the sentence was passed, defence lawyers Josephus Tan and Cory Wong had said in mitigation that Annie’s death was “unexpected and unintended", and a case of “discipline gone wrong”.

They said the couple is “very remorseful”, pointing out that they had divulged the most intimate details of their offences to the authorities. Without their cooperation, “the charges would have been very difficult to prove", they noted.

They highlighted that Tan herself had suffered - she had been abused by her own family and suffered three miscarriages.

The defence team also said that Pua “did not dare to control (his) wife” and that “he regrets not manning up and putting a stop to (the abuse) before things got out of hand, urging the court to consider Pua’s “humane side”.

They asked for a lighter sentence.


On social media, the comments section of this news report was inundated by a torrent of rage and condemnation.

How could these lawyers possibly defend such “monsters”?

Many cast aspersions on the lawyers’ characters – words such as “despicable” continue to pepper online comments on various forums. 

The criticism is completely understandable. Some might say it’s almost instinctive. Those who defend monsters must themselves be monsters, many say.

However, in a sea of disdain, some voices of reason emerged, pointing out that it is a defence lawyer’s responsibility to defend his or her clients as best as possible and that the lawyers were merely doing their jobs. 


The late Subhas Anandan, the renowned criminal lawyer who earned a reputation for defending many notorious criminals, once said, "However heinous your offence is, I think you deserve a proper defence. Why should anybody say that he is guilty when the court has not found him guilty yet.”

Criminal lawyers I’ve spoken to often tell me they face sometimes excruciating moral dilemmas when representing criminals, but most agree with this dictum – everyone, even the most heinous criminals, deserves fair legal representation.

In an interview last year with the NUS Criminal Justice Club, lawyer Josephus Tan, who is part of the defence team in Annie Ee’s case, said: “Criminal lawyers tend to judge the least. It is a necessary part of the job.

“There have certainly been instances where clients blatantly lie in the face of the evidence presented. The rule is simple: If you’ve committed an offence, you should plead guilty and try to secure a fair sentence. If not, you should claim trial to prove your innocence.”


This is due legal process.

A system with no due process could hurt all of us, including genuinely innocent accused individuals.

This certainly is not the first time that Josephus Tan and many other lawyers have had to defend offenders who are universally condemned by the public.

In fact, last year, Josephus Tan was asked by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam to represent a man suspected of flinging a cat to its death from the 13th floor of an HDB block.

In a Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam categorically condemned the action, but said he was informed that the offender might have a medical condition and suffered from a moderate intellectual disability. His family could not afford to engage a lawyer and asked for help. 

While some advised Mr Shanmugam not to help because it may send out the wrong signals, he said, to him, it was “very clear that my duty is to help Mr Lee get a lawyer. The court can then get all the facts and decide on the question of whether he is guilty, as well as the appropriate sentence, if (with emphasis), he is found guilty.

“We should leave matters to the court. The key thing is that the person(s) responsible for the killings should be identified and stopped; and should face the punishment according to the law. If someone is mentally unsound, then that is a matter to be proven in court, and for the court to consider in deciding on what to do.”

Due process and the rule of law are the bedrock of civilised societies.

While we call for offenders to be punished, the rule of law also dictates that accused persons have a right to due judicial process before they are convicted or acquitted.

To attack the lawyers who do their jobs in this process is uncalled for.

Even when it comes to mitigating circumstances, the courts will weigh the factors and evidence carefully before coming to a decision. 


Some might ask why the rights of offenders such as Tan and Pua should be respected at all, considering they did not respect the rights of a defenceless, intellectually disabled woman.  

The alternative is a society where mob justice prevails or something akin to kangaroo courts whose verdicts offer no impartial justice.  

While it is almost intuitive to lose ourselves in rage when faced with facts such as those in Annie Ee’s case, ultimately reason must prevail.

Moral dilemmas aside, defence lawyers who follow the rule of law are merely doing their jobs and the legal ethics they have to abide by are their professional moral compass.

The rest of us certainly have the right to express our anger, but we must also realise that it is unfair to pour scorn on those who are merely doing their jobs in our legal system.

Those who committed the offences may not have been reasonable, but the rest of us can be.

Source: CNA/am