Morality vs legality — how criminal justice works in acquitting ex-Grab driver of sexual offences
A former Grab driver was recently acquitted of charges of attempted rape and sexual assault on a drunken female passenger. The case has attracted attention from the public, some of whom appear to be outraged by the outcome.
A former Grab driver was recently acquitted of charges of attempted rape and sexual assault on a drunken female passenger.
The case has attracted attention from the public, some of whom appear to be outraged by the outcome.
An acquittal is not necessarily a failure of justice. All accusations must be rigorously examined to prevent wrongful convictions.
Despite the strong emotions the outcome of a criminal case may invoke, it is important to examine the facts and the context of the case objectively.
Public confidence in the criminal justice system depends on an accurate understanding of how the system works.
OPEN JUSTICE AND RESPECT FOR THE LAW
First, everyone is entitled to their opinion about whether the verdict is correct.
Open justice is a foundational principle of Singapore’s legal system. This is why court hearings are generally open to the public.
Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done to preserve confidence in the justice system.
Therefore, anyone can attend a trial or read about a trial and form their own opinions.
They can express those opinions in public, as freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected by Article 14 of the Constitution.
This does not mean, however, that public opinion has any legal effect. The judge’s duty is to apply the law, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
Second, the judge’s findings of fact and law are binding, unless and until overturned by a higher court.
While everyone is entitled to an opinion, the integrity of the legal system requires that everyone respect the judge’s findings.
An effective dispute resolution mechanism necessitates that someone have ultimate responsibility for deciding in the event of a dispute. Once that person has made a decision, people must abide by it even if they disagree with it.
It would defeat the purpose of any adjudication system if parties, or members of the public, were free to disregard the proper result of the adjudication process.
Acting in defiance of court orders or, worse, impugning the integrity of a judge, could amount to contempt of court — which is a punishable offence.
THE PROPER WAY FORWARD
Third, if there is dissatisfaction with the outcome, the appropriate procedure is to appeal against the acquittal to a higher court.
This allows for the issues to be considered thoroughly and rigorously and for justice to be served while maintaining the integrity of the system.
Public opinion is not necessarily a good indicator of the measure of justice.
The public can sometimes be influenced by emotional and other non-legal considerations.
For example, in the case of Joshua Robinson, an American expatriate who was convicted in 2017 of sexual offences with underaged girls, there was considerable public outrage despite the fact that his four-year jail sentence was in line with relevant past cases and thus legally defensible.
In the latest case involving the former Grab driver, a major source of confusion appears to be that people are morally outraged by the accused apparently “taking advantage” of the complainant.
However, immoral is not the same thing as illegal. Even if the accused may have acted immorally towards the complainant, that does not mean he is necessarily guilty of an offence.
For example, in the case of Tey Tsun Hang in 2012, a university professor who was having an affair with his student, the High Court acquitted the accused of corruption charges because he did not objectively satisfy the requirements for corruption.
However, the judge said: “[A]lthough the appellant may consider that my decision has vindicated him, it will be obvious that my decision vindicates him of the charges only. This court does not condone the way he abused his position and exploited [the student].
“He took advantage of her to satisfy his greed and his lust. He did not even take responsibility when she told him that she was pregnant.
"Instead, he lied to her that he had no money when he told her to get rid of the baby. He is a man without honour.”
The court’s job is only to enforce the law, not to police morality. Immoral conduct is not necessarily illegal.
For example, adultery, though immoral, is no longer a criminal offence.
Whether the law should be changed to align more closely with morality is a separate issue. But that is an issue reserved for Parliament and not the courts.
Another area of confusion in this case is the burden of proof.
In the former Grab driver’s case, some people may not find the accused’s version of events convincing.
But the accused does not need to prove that the complainant consented to the sexual acts — the prosecution needs to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the complainant did not consent or was incapable of consent.
This is a fundamental principle of our legal system: The burden of proof lies with the prosecution.
Anyone can be accused of a crime. That is why it is important that the accusation is rigorously proved before legal consequences can follow. This is known as the presumption of innocence.
If there is even a reasonable possibility that the complainant consented, then the accused is entitled to an acquittal.
For example, in the case of Ong Mingwee in 2012, the accused was acquitted of a rape charge after the High Court found there was reasonable doubt about whether a girl he had brought home from Zouk had not consented to the sexual acts.
This is a non-exhaustive list of the important legal issues involved. These and other legal nuances are why the case needs to be carefully considered by a proper court, if justice is to be done.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Fourth, it is for the prosecution to decide whether to appeal against an acquittal. This is a matter of prosecutorial discretion.
The Public Prosecutor, who is the Attorney-General, decides on whether there is public interest in pursuing an appeal.
This decision is not always straightforward. If the prosecution brings a case, it implies they believe the accused is guilty. However, after the trial, the prosecution may find that the judge’s reasons for acquitting are sound.
Therefore, not all acquittals are appealed.
Under the Criminal Procedure Code, the prosecution must decide whether to file an appeal within 14 days from the date of the judgment.
If an appeal is pursued, the judge will need to write a more comprehensive document setting out the grounds of his decision — his full reasons for the judgment. Currently, the judge has only released brief remarks on his reasons for the decision.
Once the prosecution has seen the judge’s grounds of decision, they can decide whether to proceed with or withdraw the appeal. If the appeal is withdrawn, the acquittal stands.
If the appeal proceeds, it will then be fixed for hearing before the Court of Appeal. The prosecution must state its grounds of appeal — the issues of fact or law on which the prosecution believes the trial court was wrong.
The appellate court does not rehear the entire case. The burden will be on the appellant, the party appealing against the trial court’s decision, to show why the appeal should succeed.
In this case, the prosecution, if it appeals, would have to show why the acquittal is wrong in law or against the weight of the evidence admitted during the trial.
Until this process is complete, the story is not over. We will therefore have to wait and see what happens in the coming weeks.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alexander Woon is a lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences’ School of Law and practises law as Of Counsel at RHTLaw Asia. He was formerly a Deputy Public Prosecutor at the Attorney-General's Chambers.