The Big Read: Accused persons get no sympathy but long proceedings are tough, more so on those not found guilty
Those interviewed believe society should abide by the principle that accused persons remain innocent until proven otherwise — even though this could be hard to put into practice at all levels.
SINGAPORE: Mr Tan Kah Heng had banked on his newly opened bubble tea shop to help pay for his younger son’s university education overseas. But his plan was derailed after two of his employees accused him of molesting them.
After the two alleged victims filed police reports against him in late-2017, he found himself short on manpower and soon had to shutter the business.
During his court trial, which began in October last year, Mr Tan struggled to find odd jobs, occasionally helping friends to deliver goods. The divorcee with two adult-age sons also went from renting his own room to staying with his older sister.
He was eventually acquitted of eight outrage of modesty charges in February due to the employees’ unconvincing evidence — more than three years after the allegations surfaced. The 56-year-old now delivers flowers but has remained without a steady job.
Mr Tan’s case underscores the challenges that many accused persons face while waiting for their day in court. The process can take months or even years, leaving their lives in limbo and their future uncertain.
It is not over for Mr Tan either. The prosecution has filed an appeal against the acquittal, which means it could take several more months before the case concludes.
“I had no mood to do anything. I couldn’t do anything — I didn’t know when I would have to report to the police station… After the prosecution appealed, I just thought, why hasn’t (the case) finished?” he said in Mandarin.
Court cases, such as Mr Tan’s, can be long-drawn due to many legitimate reasons — including factors beyond anyone’s control such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the courts hearing only essential and urgent cases for about two months when Singapore entered the circuit breaker period.
But the fact remains that for accused persons, the impact on their lives and livelihoods can be huge — often even before they are convicted.
DOCTOR LOST HIS JOB AFTER BEING CHARGED
For another accused person, molestation charges cost him his job at a Kallang clinic.
General practitioner Lui Weng Sun, 48, was acquitted last month of molesting a female patient in 2017 after a judge found several aspects of her evidence to be inconsistent and unconvincing.
READ: Doctor acquitted of molesting patient, judge points to unconvincing and inconsistent testimony
Dr Lui had worked at the Northeast Medical Group clinic, located along Jalan Tiga off Old Airport Road, for several years. During his trial, he testified that he was asked to leave by the other owners “to preserve their reputation” after he was arrested and charged.
He then had to split his time between another clinic and working as a locum (stand-in doctor).
On the day he was acquitted, he looked visibly relieved in court, with his wife crying after the verdict was read out. His defence counsel said Dr Liu was “happy and relieved” as the matter had been “hanging over his head for nearly three-and-a-half years”.
Dr Liu declined an interview, as the prosecution has filed an appeal against the acquittal and he does not wish to jeopardise the case.
In recent times, high-profile cases such as that of former domestic worker Parti Liyani have also shone a light on just how long it could take for justice to be served.
READ: Parti Liyani's lawyer crosses swords with deputy chief prosecutor in unprecedented compensation bid
Ms Parti, who worked for then-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, was first charged in late 2016 with stealing over S$34,000 worth of items from his home. She was subsequently acquitted in the High Court in September 2020, having spent four years staying in a shelter in Singapore and unable to work due to the proceedings.
Nevertheless, lawyers said that the Singapore courts have remained efficient despite some cases taking longer than usual to conclude.
Mr Anand George, a partner at IRB Law, said that in comparison with other similar jurisdictions, “we are definitely a lot faster”.
This is due to the way case management timelines are enforced by the courts and how the judiciary has adapted to changes, such as holding hearings over video-conferencing platform Zoom when COVID-19 hit, he added.
WHAT COURT STATISTICS SHOW
In response to queries, spokespersons from the State Courts and Supreme Court offered some insights into why some cases took longer than others to conclude.
These include the nature and complexity of the case, whether parties are all available for hearing or trial dates, and the number of witnesses involved. Specifically for criminal cases, issues such as the length of time taken to complete investigations and prepare expert reports will also affect how quickly a case wraps up.
"While the State Courts actively manage our caseload to ensure timely disposal, our topmost commitment is to ensure that parties are accorded due process and a fair trial,” the State Courts spokesperson added.
Both courts have rolled out measures such as remote hearings, which are now held daily. The Supreme Court spokesperson also noted that a new appellate division was formed in the High Court to handle the growing number of appeals in recent years, as well as the “increase in the complexity of matters that have come before the Court of Appeal”.
READ: Commentary: Why would anyone steal underwear – and flout circuit breaker restrictions to do that?
Statistics from annual reports showed that the Supreme Court’s average clearance rate for civil and criminal cases — the number of cases disposed expressed as a percentage of the number of cases filed in the same year — had held steady at 96.6 per cent from 2010 to 2014, and 96.8 per cent from 2015 to 2019.
As for the State Courts, the average clearance rate for criminal cases from 2016 to 2019 was 106 per cent.
The cases disposed of and filed may not be the same ones, hence why the clearance rate can exceed 100 per cent.
It was at 126 per cent in 2019, after the number of cases filed that year dropped to 196,647. Prior to this, the annual number of cases filed in the State Courts had ranged from about 250,000 to 296,000 from 2009 to 2017, before reaching a peak of 303,487 in 2018.
TODAY has asked State Courts for the reason behind the drop in cases filed in 2019. Lawyers were unsure why but said it might have been due to the relocation of the courts’ premises that year, which could have disrupted operations.
Last year’s figures for both the State Courts and the Supreme Court have not been released yet.
In comparison, publicly available figures from Hong Kong’s District Court — similar to the State Courts here — showed that its clearance rate for criminal cases was 83 per cent in 2018 and 125 per cent in 2019, before falling to 69 per cent last year.
In Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal, the clearance rate in its appellate division rose from 83 per cent in 2018 to 93.8 per cent in 2019.
In Australia’s County Court of Victoria, which is equivalent to a district court, the clearance rate from 2018 to 2019 was 97.2 per cent. This fell slightly to 96.4 per cent from 2019 to last year.
Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian reported that a court backlog due to the COVID-19 pandemic had led to waits of as long as four years for trials to commence in England and Wales. According to an annual report published late last year, Crown courts in both areas received 104,000 cases and disposed of 100,000 in 2019, translating to a clearance rate of 96.1 per cent.
While clearance rates measure efficiency, they do not account for cases that take longer than usual to conclude.
ACCUSED PERSONS FACE UNCERTAINTY, STRESS
While the law declares that one is innocent until found guilty, accused persons often find the presumption of guilt hanging like a Sword of Damocles over their heads even before they are convicted.
Once court proceedings start, they risk being fired from their jobs or having to suffer the embarrassment of having their cases being reported in the media, said lawyers and human resource experts.
In fact, some end up suffering “so much stress and anxiety that they develop psychiatric issues”, requiring counselling and medication, said Mr Kalidass Murugaiyan and Mr Chua Hock Lu from Kalidass Law Corporation in an email response.
They added: “The stress suffered can be extraordinary… (one of Mr Kalidass’ clients) passed away shortly after court proceedings began.
"Some of our clients, especially those suffering from psychiatric issues, are particularly sensitive to any media coverage. In some cases, it reportedly resulted in social repercussions as their friends and acquaintances started to regard them negatively."
Those who cannot afford bail or are not offered bail will be remanded, which means leaving their family to fend for themselves, the lawyers noted.
They said: “This can range anywhere from leaving behind a newborn to be raised by a single parent, to having to leave an elderly parent at a nursing home.”
Mr George said that some of his clients who run their own businesses are cut off by banks, even if their alleged offences are not financial-related. He then has to write to the banks to appeal to them to offer banking facilities to his clients.
Costs are also a problem, as accused persons have to continue paying for legal counsel throughout the proceedings. Employers will occasionally support their employees financially but this becomes more difficult as the case drags on, Mr George noted.
“Usually, because you don't know what the sentence is, until the date of the hearing, there will be some degree of uncertainty. They will be like: ‘Okay, do I quit (my job) so that I can serve my prison sentence?’ … Some of them had to leave their jobs and that's really sad,” Mr George added.
Mr Kalidass and Mr Chua echoed the same sentiment, saying that jobseekers face difficulty as prospective employers may not want to hire someone facing criminal charges or accommodate an employee who has to take time off to report to court.
Depending on the seniority of the defence counsel, criminal trials can typically cost an accused person a few thousand dollars or up to S$15,000 a day, while more complex trials — such as white-collar offences — could cost six figures in total. Those who choose to plead guilty will likely pay less, either by a fixed fee arrangement or by hourly billing.
Mr Nicolas Tang, managing director of Farallon Law Corporation, said that accused persons also do not receive compensation from the prosecution if they drop the charges, or if the accused is eventually acquitted. This is on top of “significant legal fees” to hire lawyers to defend them.
“We have had clients who lost income because the police had seized their client information, documents, computers and goods from their warehouses or stores while the case was ongoing,” Mr Tang added.
ACCUSED PERSONS FIRED BEFORE CONVICTION
Indeed, the possibility of having zero income can be an accused person’s biggest fear.
Whether an employer will terminate the contract of an employee who has been charged in court depends on the company’s code of conduct and values, said Ms Carmen Wee, a veteran human resources practitioner.
“I've been seeing over the years that companies have also chosen to terminate employees because they got into trouble with the law, in terms of a lawsuit or pending prosecution. So it's really up to … the company's culture, and what are the expectations or conduct of the employees, because employees represent them in the marketplace,” she added.
For example, if a male employee is accused of a serious sexual crime and frequently interacts with female colleagues, it could get “very uncomfortable” and lead to the company firing him even without a court conviction, Ms Wee said.
Mr David Ang, the director of corporate services at Human Capital Singapore, said that it also depends on an accused person’s seniority in the company. From his experience, he found that the majority of companies will “take the short way out” and ask employees to serve their notice.
“It’s quite complicated,” Mr Ang said. “A person is innocent until he is found guilty, but is that what society believes in? The moment you’ve got a doubt, you’re in trouble.”
The HR experts and lawyers said that it is not illegal for an employer to fire an employee facing charges before he or she is convicted.
Employees can file a civil lawsuit for wrongful dismissal, though Ms Wee noted that Singaporeans “tend to be careful” about this as it can be a “double whammy” if they also lose the suit. Fighting lawsuits also costs money.
Mr Tang said that criminal charges alone would not justify termination, unless the employment contract expressly allows for it.
Some companies would conduct their own internal inquiries, and if these establish misconduct has occurred, termination may be justified pursuant to the employment contract terms.
“If an employee is wrongfully dismissed and has been acquitted, the employee can sue the employer for wrongful dismissal and claim damages and loss of income as a result of such dismissal. The situation is less clear if bonuses are not paid out or if the employee is not promoted as a result of a pending criminal charge,” the lawyer added.
Mr Ang, the HR expert, suggested that accused persons who have not been convicted yet can also approach their Member of Parliament for help in getting a job, should they be let go.
In terms of recourse for those who are falsely accused or eventually acquitted, criminal charges can be pressed against the accusers for giving false statements or lying in court.
Nevertheless, accused persons can be acquitted for other reasons such as technicalities, a lack of evidence or unreliable testimony or evidence. The prosecution also has to prove all charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
For example, two men were cleared of causing grievous hurt with a deadly weapon and wrongful restraint in 2019, after a judge found that the victim’s recounting of the incident to be unreliable and inconsistent.
A third man was convicted and jailed over the incident.
WHITHER SUPPORT FOR ACCUSED PERSONS?
Given all that accused persons have to go through, what kind of support can they get when undergoing court proceedings?
For most, not much. Their lawyers can act almost as their counsellors, doling out advice to them and their families, especially on how the legal process works.
Mr John Koh, associate director at Populus Law Corporation, said that lawyers are in a privileged position to help their clients, who will often share about issues such as their family problems and financial predicament.
He added: “More often than not, we will try to reassure our client and manage their emotions. We do often double up as a counsellor of sorts, but if we notice that our clients are on the verge of something more drastic, we will always advise them to seek professional help.”
More support should be given for accused persons’ mental wellbeing during court proceedings, Mr Koh said. While they can go to various counselling centres, most of them charge a fee and many accused persons cannot afford it, he added.
In the State Courts’ community courts — which usually deal with young offenders aged below 21 and those with mental disabilities, among others — judges can convene community court conferences for accused persons and victims in family violence cases. This can take place before a conviction or sentencing.
During these conferences, psychologists, social workers and counsellors will attempt to explore appropriate treatment plans to prevent accused persons from reoffending.
On the other hand, victims can seek help from the authorities, such as the police or the courts.
When sexual crimes are being investigated, for instance, victims can take up the police’s services of a Victim Care Officer, a community volunteer trained to provide psychological and practical support to victims.
For Ms Rachel Lim En Hui, 29, a medical social worker referred her to family violence specialist centre Pave for counselling after she ended up in hospital in 2017.
Her then-boyfriend, Clarence Teo Shun Jie, had brutally bashed her in his bedroom in the latest of a series of assaults. She suffered severe injuries in the form of multiple facial fractures, a fracture to her little finger and a brain haemorrhage.
READ: Doctor who assaulted ex-girlfriend when refused sex to be referred to disciplinary tribunal: SMC
READ: Doctor found guilty of locking ex-girlfriend in room, assaulting her after she refused him sex
As a victim, Ms Lim was also affected by the drawn-out court proceedings against Teo, saying that the whole process took so long that it was “always at the back of my head”.
Teo was sentenced to about three-and-a-half years’ jail, four strokes of the cane and a fine last year, before being banned from practising as a doctor earlier this year.
Ms Lim said that the authorities had told her they would expedite the case due to its horrific nature, but it ended up taking more than two years for Teo to be dealt with. He had also claimed trial to two charges which dragged the process out.
Ms Lim, who now works as a content strategist for a private psychology school, said: “I was in a constant state of preparing for the worst… It affected my daily life in subtle ways but (it was) pervasive. It didn’t make me super depressed (or) unable to get out of the house, but it was this constant nagging and stress and worry.
“Knowing that I had to face such a thing, and knowing that it was going to be in the media, that was the worst part. And it turned out it (the case) was huge in the media.”
Lawyers said that in general, there is little that can be done to further expedite cases, given how numerous parties are involved — from the prosecution to the relevant investigating agencies, the defence and the courts.
Mr George suggested that more cases could be sent to the pre-trial conference stage earlier, an administrative hearing where the prosecution and defence meet a judge to manage the progress of the case. But he noted that more judges and prosecutors would have to be allocated to attend to them — a manpower issue that may prove difficult to resolve.
Mr Kalidass and Mr Chua said that while some cases are fairly straightforward, trials are “a different creature altogether” — these may take years despite efforts by both the prosecution and defence to speed things up.
Echoing the courts’ stance, the two lawyers added: “Swiftness is desirable in the abstract, but this cannot be at the cost of the quality of due process, for justice hurried is justice buried.”
Those interviewed believed that at the end of the day, society should abide by the principle that accused persons remain innocent until proven otherwise — even though this could be hard to put into practice at all levels.
Mr Koh said: “Perhaps the general opinion may be that these accused persons got themselves into this predicament from their actions and they do not deserve help.”
The lawyer added: “If society wants to operate inclusively, for example by helping ex-convicts reintegrate into society, why are we abandoning this vulnerable group of persons who are still innocent (until proven guilty)?”