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Court of Appeal orders maid killer's lawyer to pay prosecution S$3,000 in costs

SINGAPORE — The apex court on Friday (July 15) ordered lawyer Joseph Chen, who previously represented a woman convicted of fatally abusing her domestic worker in a high-profile case, to pay S$3,000 in personal costs to the prosecution.
Court of Appeal orders maid killer's lawyer to pay prosecution S$3,000 in costs
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  • Mr Joseph Chen formerly defended Gaiyathiri Murugayan, who abused her domestic worker to death in 2016
  • The apex court found that he knew her bid for further records to support her appeal was bound to fail, but he helped her anyway
  • She has since lost an appeal against her sentence of 30 years’ jail

SINGAPORE — The apex court on Friday (July 15) ordered lawyer Joseph Chen, who previously represented a woman convicted of fatally abusing her domestic worker in a high-profile case, to pay S$3,000 in personal costs to the prosecution.

Mr Chen’s behaviour fell short of "what is expected of reasonable defence counsel”, and he should have known that his client Gaiyathiri Murugayan’s bid to seek more records in support of her appeal was bound to fail, the three-judge Court of Appeal panel said.

Gaiyathiri, 42, is now serving a 30-year jail sentence for viciously abusing and starving Piang Ngaih Don almost daily for several months till she died in 2016.

The case sparked public ire and also prompted Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to describe Gaiyathiri’s bestiality as “shocking”.

Piang was 24 when she died on July 26, 2016 at her employer’s Bishan flat. She had been working for Gaiyathiri’s family for about a year and weighed just 24kg after being deprived of food.

Gaiyathiri failed in an appeal to halve her sentence on June 29 this year.

Friday’s personal costs order was in relation to her earlier request for records to support the said appeal. She had applied for orders of discovery — the formal process where parties exchange relevant documents — against the prosecution and the Singapore Prison Service.

She requested medical records in relation to herself and her mother, alleging that they had not been provided appropriate treatment and care by the prison authorities.

She also asked for records kept by the prison authorities in relation to her complaints about being allegedly abused physically and sexually by fellow inmates.

The Court of Appeal denied her request after ruling that these records were irrelevant to her appeal.

(Left) An old picture of Piang Ngaih Don. (Right) Gaiyathiri Murugayan in the centre being led by investigators to her Bishan flat in 2016 for a re-enactment of how Piang died.


In ordering Mr Chen — who runs the law firm Joseph Chen & Co — to pay personal costs, the judges considered:

  • Whether he acted improperly, unreasonably or negligently
  • If so, whether such conduct caused the public prosecutor to incur unnecessary costs
  • If so, whether it was “in all the circumstances just” to order him to compensate the public prosecutor for all or any part of the costs incurred

They then ruled that Mr Chen helped Gaiyathiri to file her request, known as a criminal motion, “despite it being obviously bound to fail”.

The judges reiterated that there was no legal or factual basis for ordering the disclosure of the materials Gaiyathiri sought.

Justice Andrew Phang, who heard the appeal along with Justices Judith Prakash and Steven Chong, said: “More critically, Mr Chen would have known that this part of (the criminal motion) was bound to fail.

"None of the materials for which disclosure was sought was in the possession of the (prosecution)."

The judges also said that Mr Chen likely did not consider the merits or necessity of asking for discovery, and “simply facilitated” filing the criminal motion at Gaiyaithiri’s behest.

As for Gaiyathiri’s application for leave to submit a psychiatric report as further evidence, the judges said that this was “even more egregious”.

This was because there was no basis on which they could have considered the application.

The judges also noted that in urging the court not to order him to pay personal costs, Mr Chen had essentially admitted that this report did not exist. This meant that he “encumbered the court with a hopeless application that was nothing but a waste of the court’s time”.

Mr Chen also argued that he had acted in good faith and genuinely believed that the apex court would side with his client.

However, the appellate judges referred to a separate precedent case, saying that this was not a good enough reason because it would “simply allow entirely negligent solicitors who genuinely believe their own faulty arguments to escape the consequences of their conduct”.

In any case, Mr Chen did not seem to have acted in good faith, the Court of Appeal found.

They dismissed his arguments that he was helping Gaiyathiri “from a humanitarian perspective” and “from (her) children’s point of view” because she could not be with them during their formative years.

“Whatever reasons counsel might have for taking on their client’s case, it does not excuse them from their duty as officers of the court to assess the merits of their client’s case before invoking the court’s processes,” the judges added.

Mr Chen, who became a lawyer about 25 years ago, was in 2005 suspended from practice for four years.

He had lied that he was an inmate's friend and accompanied the inmate's grandmother to visit him, after the prison authorities refused his request to interview the inmate as a lawyer.

In a 2018 disciplinary tribunal report, it was stated that Mr Chen was also reprimanded by the Council of the Law Society then.

This was for giving an invoice of S$35,000 to his client for professional fees, contrary to the agreed fees of S$8,000, without first informing his client of any change in circumstances.

Related topics

court crime court of appeal Gaiyathiri Murugayan Joseph Chen lawyer maid abuse

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