The Big Read in short: Innocent until proven guilty? Not necessarily so in society’s eyes
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how protracted police and court proceedings can take a toll on accused persons, especially if they are eventually acquitted. This is a shortened version of the full feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how protracted police and court proceedings can take a toll on accused persons, especially if they are eventually acquitted. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
- Due to various factors, police and court proceedings can last for years and leave those who face criminal charges in limbo
- Some can be fired from their jobs even before conviction, while some encounter financial, family or psychiatric issues
- There are also not many options for recourse for those who are eventually acquitted or found to have been falsely accused
- Lawyers and the courts said there are multiple reasons why some cases may take a long time to conclude, such as their complexity or number of witnesses involved
- Singapore courts’ clearance rates compare well to those in jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Australia
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.
Court cases, such as Mr Tan’s, can be long-drawn due to many legitimate reasons. But the fact remains that for accused persons, the impact on their lives and livelihoods can be huge — often even before they are convicted.
For general practitioner Lui Weng Sun, 48, the other owners of the Kallang clinic he worked at asked him to leave after he was arrested and charged, in order “to preserve their reputation”.
He 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.
TODAY had approached Dr Liu for an interview but he declined, as the prosecution has filed an appeal against the acquittal and he does not wish to jeopardise the case.
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 TODAY’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
Mr Kalidass Murugaiyan and Mr Chua Hock Lu from Kalidass Law Corporation said that some of their clients developed psychiatric issues from the stress and anxiety.
Mr George said that costs are also a problem, as accused persons have to continue paying for legal counsel throughout the proceedings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHITHER SUPPORT FOR ACCUSED PERSONS?
Despite all this, most accused persons do not get much support during court proceedings. Their lawyers can act almost as their counsellors, doling out advice to them and their families, especially on how the legal process works.
On the other hand, victims can seek help from the authorities, such as the police or the courts.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
In Mr Kalidass’ and Mr Chua’s words: “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 by TODAY 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)?”
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