SINGAPORE: The legal year opened on Monday (Jan 11) with reflections on past cases including Parti Liyani's, with the Attorney-General acknowledging that there were "imperfections in the past year" that exposed the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) to intense scrutiny and criticism.
While referencing acquittals such as in the widely publicised case of former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong's domestic helper, AG Lucien Wong said the year 2020 was "uniquely challenging" for AGC as there was "a sense that the public's trust in us was at stake".
In his speech at the opening of the legal year, Mr Wong said prosecutors weathered "our own crisis of sorts in 2020".
"There were several decisions that did not go our way, including Parti Liyani and Gobi Avedian," he said to an audience that included attendees in the State Courts and viewers on Zoom.
"These are not the first high-profile acquittals in our history and they will certainly not be the last. However, what made 2020 uniquely challenging was a sense that the public's trust in us was at stake," said the Attorney-General.
He said the AGC takes this "extremely seriously, because that trust is fundamental to our mission and we work very hard to be worthy of it".
The Chief Justice in his speech also touched on the case of Ms Parti, saying it would be naive and "even foolhardy to think that judges are infallible".
READ: Timeline: How former maid Parti Liyani was acquitted of stealing from Changi Airport Group chairman's family
"That is precisely why virtually all judicial structures in the world incorporate a system of corrective procedures such as appeals, so that where something might have gone amiss at first instance, there is the opportunity to set it right," he said.
"Justice Chan Seng Onn was confronted with that responsibility in Ms Parti Liyani’s case. He carefully scrutinised the evidence that had been led, the arguments that were advanced before him and the judgment of the trial court and arrived at his decision for reasons that he explained in considerable detail," said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.
He cited Law Minister K Shanmugam's observation that this was "in fact a classic illustration of how the rule of law operates in Singapore".
"As he put it, before the court, all are equal, and justice is administered according to the facts and the law as seen by the court," said the Chief Justice.
He said it is imperative not to rush to judgment and "condemn errors in the judicial process as suggestive of bad faith or impropriety".
READ: Chief Justice grants investigation into Parti Liyani's complaint of misconduct against prosecutors
"Where there is reason to think that there might have been misconduct, steps will be taken in accordance with the applicable processes and these must be allowed to take their course," said Chief Justice Menon.
AG LUCIEN WONG ACKNOWLEDGES IMPERFECTIONS
In his speech, the Attorney-General assured the public that AGC recognises that it has a "grave and sacred duty to use our prosecutorial discretion to serve the public interest".
"That is the lodestar for all prosecutors. Our motive is not to win at all costs or to secure the most convictions, but to reach just outcomes fairly," he said.
Mr Wong said charging decisions are made only after AGC is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable prospect of conviction and that it is in the public interest to prosecute.
"Every prosecution is commenced in the genuine belief that a crime has been committed and needs to be answered for," said Mr Wong.
However, if new facts and circumstances come to light showing that prosecution is no longer tenable or desirable after a person is charged in court, AGC will review the matter and withdraw charges.
While lauding his prosecutors for their work, Mr Wong said: "Even so, I must acknowledge that there were imperfections in the past year that exposed AGC to intense scrutiny and criticism."
He added that this was not the appropriate forum for him to traverse the specifics of these cases, but pledged that AGC will do better to discharge its fundamental duty to assist the court to arrive at the correct decision as ministers of justice.
AGC is taking concrete steps to live up to this, such as careful review of the training and guidance given to prosecutors and the drawing up of detailed internal guidance on how prosecutors can fulfil their obligations to disclose documents to the defence.
"A key tenet of prosecutorial training is that all prosecutions should be guided by the public interest. Our culture must be one where prosecutors take pride in doing right, not just by victims of crime, but also by accused persons and by society," said Mr Wong.
In response to "the lessons which we learnt from the Parti Liyani case", the prosecution is working with the police on internal guidelines for recording investigative statements properly and obtaining proper valuations of items which are the subject of property offences.
READ: Police, AGC had reason to take action against Parti Liyani; aspects of case could have been handled better, says Shanmugam
To help preserve and enhance the public's trust, AGC will also step up its efforts to "demystify the inner workings of prosecution" and make the criminal legal system more accessible and intelligible to the public.
Some ways AGC has already tried to do this include clarifications of misinformation for cases that draw widespread public interest, as well as articulating the basis for its decisions.
The Orchard Towers death is one such case that saw AGC issue press statements to refute allegations of racial bias, and to explain charging and sentencing positions.
READ: Evidence, intention and involvement: AGC, lawyers explain the decisions behind reducing murder charges
For Parti Liyani, AGC also issued media releases "to clarify the process by which the charging decision was made, so as to dispel any misconception that the complainant was given special treatment or that I was somehow involved in the charging decision in view of my prior acquaintance with (Liew Mun Leong)", said the Attorney-General.
"Through the initiatives I have described, we are working to address institutional gaps and provide greater accountability to the public," said Mr Wong.
He asked for understanding from the public, adding that AGC does not shy from criticism as long as it is fair.
"Not every acquittal is a sign that our prosecutors have failed in their duty as ministers of justice," he said.
"Some acquittals may result precisely because we took steps which served the interests of justice but were adverse to our case, for instance, by sharing evidence with the defence."
He added that acquittals "are a sign of health for the legal system" in the broader scheme, demonstrating that judges probe the prosecution’s case and apply their minds fairly and independently.
"More importantly, acquittals also show that AGC does not only pursue cases that are easy wins, but also cases where we truly believe that an offence has been committed and must be addressed," he said.
"The real measure of AGC as an institution does not lie in the number of convictions we secure, but in prosecuting worthy cases fairly and upholding the public interest," said Mr Wong.
"We will not allow the fear of failure or of public backlash to stand in the way of this duty. Let me stress this clearly – neither acquittals nor baseless lawsuits or actions commenced against my Chambers or my prosecutors will deter us from fulfilling our mission to prosecute in the public interest."