Lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam fined for breaching gag order in case of doctor acquitted of molestation
Journalists received trial transcripts containing unredacted information about the woman Dr Yeo Sow Nam was accused, and later acquitted, of molesting.
SINGAPORE: Lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, 47, was on Tuesday (Aug 30) fined S$4,000 for breaching a gag order in the case of a doctor who was later acquitted of molestation.
He led the team of lawyers for the defendant in that case, Dr Yeo Sow Nam. A junior lawyer on the team, Johannes Hadi, also faces charges related to the gag order.
Thuraisingam, the managing partner of his eponymous law firm, is a senior member of Singapore's Criminal Bar with more than 20 years in practice.
He pleaded guilty to a charge under the State Courts Act, with another charge taken into consideration for sentencing.
From Mar 1 to Mar 5, 2021, Dr Yeo was tried in private on accusations that he outraged a woman's modesty at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in 2017.
The woman's identity was protected under a court order issued on Feb 7, 2020. This prohibited the publication of her name, address, photograph or any information likely to lead to her identification.
Gag orders are usually imposed to protect minors, vulnerable persons and victims in sexual offence cases, a lawyer previously told CNA.
TRANSCRIPTS SENT TO MEDIA
On Mar 5, 2021, the fifth day of trial, Thuraisingam sought the trial judge's permission to distribute the transcripts of the proceedings, which were in private, to members of the media.
He gave an undertaking to the court that any distribution of the transcripts to the media would carry redactions of the woman's identity and a warning about the gag order in place.
The trial judge granted Thuraisingam's application on the basis that the lawyer would make the necessary redactions and there would be no breach of the gag order.
On Mar 16, 2021, after the team received the transcripts for the first four days of trial, Thuraisingam sent Hadi instructions over email about distributing them to the media.
"Pls remember to black out complainant's name and remind the press that they cannot print the complainant's name," he wrote, referring to the woman who was the complainant against Dr Yeo.
"Explain that we applied for an order that we be allowed to furnish the press with the transcripts," he added.
Thuraisingam did not instruct Hadi to redact all information likely to lead to the identification of the woman, Deputy Public Prosecutors Sivakumar Ramasamy and Sivanathan Jheevanesh said.
Following the senior lawyer's instructions, Hadi redacted only the woman's name from the transcripts and emailed them to journalists from Mediacorp and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) on Mar 16, 2021.
In his emails to media, Hadi wrote: "We are now releasing transcripts to you, but with the complainant's name redacted as the gag order in relation to the complainant's identity remains in place."
PROSECUTION'S BID TO EXPAND GAG ORDER
On Jun 26, 2021, the prosecution in Dr Yeo's case applied to withdraw the charges against the doctor. At the same time, Thuraisingam indicated that the defence would apply for the gag order to be lifted.
A hearing was scheduled on Aug 16, 2021 for the charges to be withdrawn and both sides to make their arguments on the gag order lifting application.
In preparation for the hearing, the prosecution filed written submissions contesting the gag order lifting application on Aug 4, 2021.
The prosecution requested to expand the scope of the gag order to include the identities of witnesses who were the woman's colleagues, the name of the product marketed by the woman, her relationship with Dr Yeo and the name of her employer at the time.
Before the hearing, between Aug 4 and Aug 11, 2021, Thuraisingam instructed Hadi to distribute transcripts of the trial and the defence's written submissions applying to lift the gag order to members of the media.
Thuraisingam again did not instruct Hadi to redact all information likely to lead to the woman's identification, said Mr Sivakumar and Mr Sivanathan.
Accordingly, Hadi emailed a bundle of the transcripts and submissions to journalists from Mediacorp, SPH, South China Morning Post, Mothership, Yahoo News, The China Press Malaysia and The Online Citizen on Aug 11, 2021.
The front page of the bundle carried the notation: "All transcripts have been redacted pursuant to the gag order in place at the time of writing in relation to the identification of the complainant."
However, the transcripts contained unredacted information likely to lead to the woman's identification, including her age, date of birth, current occupation, current employer and occupation at the time of the alleged molestation.
The transcripts also contained information that was the subject of the prosecution's application to expand the scope of the gag order.
At the hearing on Aug 16, 2021, Dr Yeo was given a discharge amounting to an acquittal after the prosecution withdrew all charges against him.
Dr Yeo's lawyers then withdrew the application to lift the gag order. When the trial judge asked for the defence's position on the prosecution's application to expand the gag order, Thuraisingam said: "If the prosecution says that it's necessary to protect the alleged complainant's identity, we take no position."
The trial judge then granted the expanded gag order, which remains in force.
"RE-VICTIMISATION" OF THE WOMAN
Prosecutors sought a fine of at least S$4,000, arguing that in a case involving the likelihood of the complainant being identified, the potential harm caused by Thuraisingam's offences was a key issue.
Given the number of media outlets the transcripts were sent to, with a notation that they were redacted in compliance with the gag order, the potential harm was medium if not high, the prosecutors argued.
Thuraisingam's actions were inadequate as he left the redaction to the most junior lawyer on the team, who had only two years in practice at the time, and did not check the transcripts before they were sent, said Mr Sivakumar.
The only guidance he gave was to redact the woman's name, and this conduct by an experienced member of the Bar "fell short", argued the prosecutor.
Defence counsel Jerrie Tan of K&L Gates Straits Law said her client accepted the prosecution's proposed fine.
Ms Tan urged the court to consider that the complainant's name, the "most critical part" of her identity, was redacted, and that no actual harm ensued as a result of the oversight.
She contended that Thuraisingam's email to Hadi arose out of a genuine concern that the junior lawyer might forget to redact the complainant's name and remind the press about the gag order.
Ms Tan also asked the court to consider the offences in light of "the type of lawyer" her client has been, highlighting his pro bono work, including defending clients facing the death penalty, and his firm's donations to the Law Society's pro bono services.
District Judge Toh Yung Cheong said that the release of identifying information to the media could have led to the "re-victimisation" of the complainant, which the gag order was supposed to protect her from.
Any leak of information could also affect public confidence in the legal system and the confidence of other victims to testify in court, said the judge.
He said that Thuraisingam's efforts to follow the gag order were insufficient, and this was the main cause of the breach.
The senior lawyer was entitled to ask a junior colleague to handle the transcripts, but gave incomplete instructions to Hadi and did not check the redaction before they were sent, said Judge Toh.
The prosecution's application to expand the gag order would also have alerted Thuraisingam to the fact that they were concerned about other information about the complainant being made public, said the judge.
The penalty for breaching a gag order is up to a year in jail, a fine of up to S$5,000 or both.