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Parliament: Government looking into creating public defender’s office to improve access to justice

SINGAPORE — To better improve access to justice for vulnerable populations here, the Government is considering creating a public defender’s office, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.

In Parliament, Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the Government will study the feasibility of having a public defender’s office, and it will consult with the Law Society of Singapore, the criminal bar and other relevant bodies.

In Parliament, Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the Government will study the feasibility of having a public defender’s office, and it will consult with the Law Society of Singapore, the criminal bar and other relevant bodies.

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  • The Government will study the feasibility of having a public defender’s office
  • This is to offer accused persons in criminal cases better access to justice
  • This will likely involve means and merit testing to reduce strain on public funds, Law Minister K Shanmugam said
  • MPs offered suggestions on how else the criminal justice system can be improved

 

SINGAPORE — To better improve access to justice for vulnerable populations here, the Government is considering creating a public defender’s office, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.

However, this has to be done together with means and merit testing so as not to put unnecessary strain on public funds.

Mr Shanmugam was responding to a parliamentary question from Ms Carrie Tan, Member of Parliament (MP) for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency (GRC), on Wednesday (Nov 4). He was giving a ministerial statement to address the issues surrounding the conviction and subsequent acquittal of Ms Parti Liyani, who used to be the domestic worker of former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong. 

Ms Tan asked if the authorities would consider creating a public defender’s scheme in Singapore, a separate office where the Government employs lawyers to defend accused persons in criminal cases.

Mr Shanmugam said in reply that the Government is “seriously considering” creating such an office and will study the feasibility of the move further. 

It will do so in consultation with the Law Society of Singapore, the criminal bar and other relevant bodies, he added.

Mr Gregory Vijayendran, Law Society’s president, said in a statement later that it will continue to engage in dialogue with the Ministry of Law over new access to justice initiatives.

After Mr Shanmugam’s speech that lasted more than two hours, 10 MPs asked about implicit bias in Ms Parti’s case, whether manpower constraints is a significant issue for the authorities, and how impartiality can be further entrenched in the criminal justice system, among other things.

GAPS IN POLICE PROCEDURES

Mr Shanmugam talked earlier about manpower shortage in the civil service and in the police force, to explain why there was a five-week delay between the time the Liew family made their police report about the alleged theft and when the police visited the family’s house to gather evidence.

Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh later asked Mr Shanmugam how significant is this issue and whether it is a concern moving forward. 

Mr Shanmugam then replied that the manpower issue “cannot be an excuse” and should not be treated as a precedent for future cases. Therefore, disciplinary action is also being taken against the investigation officer handling the case report from the Liew family about Ms Parti.

QUESTIONS OF IMPLICIT INFLUENCE

Ms Sylvia Lim, MP for Aljunied GRC, raised the point that the investigating officer could have felt the need to take “extra care” with the case, even though there was no pressure from Mr Liew to do so.

She noted that the investigating officer gave a different reason for the lapse during the trial — that he did not take the items into custody because he did not want to “re-victimise” the Liew family, a reason that Ms Lim said was “unusual” in theft cases.

Mr Shanmugam then said that the question of whether implicit bias was present in Ms Parti’s case was also a “question that has struck (him)”.

However, he said that the officer’s conduct seems to suggest otherwise, given that the officer had waited five weeks to act on the case rather than immediately. 

“I’m saying to you… the way the matter was handled negates the suggestion of any implicit extra attention.”

Mr Shanmugam added that the delay in gathering evidence and whether the items were seized are separate matters.

The police assess whether it is necessary to take evidence into custody depending on what the items are and the facts of the case.

Therefore, the officer’s explanation that he did not want to re-victimise the Liews had to do with these considerations, he said.

IMPROVING THE SYSTEM

On how else the criminal justice system can be improved to better serve accused persons, Mr Christopher de Souza asked whether the Government would consider having two judges at the first instance for capital crimes and five judges present on appeal.

The MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC also asked whether more can be done to further entrench impartiality into the system.

In his reply, Mr Shanmugam said that there used to be two judges for capital cases and the Government is not opposed to such an arrangement but that is something that will need to be discussed.

He agreed that the system needs to always be on guard against implicit bias, but what “we have today is still the best that we can find”.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, MP for Potong Pasir, asked whether an ombudsman — an official who reviews complaints about executive decisions — can be appointed for government agencies. 

Mr Shanmugam said that investigations into the case have been opened in different parts of the system — from AGC to the police. 

These investigations have already shown that the authorities had reason to believe at the time that Ms Parti was guilty of theft, and that no influence was exerted on the system.

The ombudsman would have done the same thing, he added.

“The question is whether an ombudsman takes you further for good governance.”

COMMISSION OF INQUIRY

Towards the tail end of Mr Shanmugam’s statement, he called upon Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai to state his reasons for why he believes a commission of inquiry, led by a Supreme Court judge, is still needed to look into Ms Parti’s case.

Mr Leong from the Progress Singapore Party said that Mr Shanmugam’s statement has raised “a lot more information about the case that could be further investigated”.

“Singaporeans are expecting that we do further investigation into this case, not just about the influence peddling, but also the systemic aspects of the whole criminal justice system,” he added.

Mr Shanmugam then chided Mr Leong for not being specific enough about where more investigation is needed.

“(The inquiry) is not a question of making some broad and vague statements,” Mr Shanmugam said. “You are a representative of the people… this is serious business.”

Mr Leong then brought up again the creation of the public defender’s office, the five-week delay in evidence-gathering, and the Liew family’s behaviour, which could warrant an inquiry.

Mr Shanmugam said that the public defender’s office and the Liews’ behaviour are not appropriate subjects for the inquiry. 

The public defender’s office is a matter of policy. On the other hand, because a commission of inquiry looks at government organs, it cannot probe into the Liew family’s behaviour.

Mr Leong then withdrew his proposal. An hour after that, he brought up the subject of an independent inquiry again and got into another exchange with Mr Shanmugam.

At the end of that, Mr Leong withdrew his proposal again, saying he was satisfied with Mr Shanmugam’s replies.

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