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Undeterred by online hate

Straits Times
24 Dec 2017
K.C. Vijayan

Lawyers say they are unfazed by the online abuse they get for defending people accused of heinous crime as this comes with the territory.

Mr Mervyn Tan, 59, was subjected to an outpouring of hatred online, with comments bordering on threats, when he defended an expatriate charged with underage sex offences earlier this year.

The expatriate, Joshua Robinson, 39, a mixed martial arts instructor, had pleaded guilty in February to making obscene films, having consensual sex with two 15-year-old girls and showing an obscene clip to a six-year-old girl.

He was sentenced to four years' jail, but many felt the sentence was too lenient. This led to an online petition of over 26,000 signatures, calling for harsher punishment.

Like fellow lawyer Josephus Tan, who drew much flak for defending the couple who fatally abused waitress Annie Ee, Mr Mervyn Tan just carried on with his duties.

Lawyers like Mr Mervyn Tan noted that their duty is to help the court arrive at a just verdict. He said: "As a lawyer , we have to protect the integrity of the system and not recoil.

"At most, I bite my tongue... and carry on with my duties."

Still, Mr Tan added that one precaution he took was not to linger in the courthouse after the hearings to avoid run-ins with any irate bystanders seeking to hurl abuse.

Likewise, lawyer Peter Ong Lip Cheng, 51, said he would not turn away cases involving horrific crimes. He had defended, for example, Kuah Bin Chuan, who bludgeoned his mother to death and whose charge was reduced to culpable homicide from murder.

"I normally don't decline to act as everyone deserves to be represented, regardless of how appalling the alleged crime," said Mr Ong, who has secured at least 70 acquittals in 20 years. He recalled the adverse comments he got when he got a pastor's jail sentence reduced to a fine after an appeal in a fuel tank tampering case five years ago.

Mr Ong said: "What keeps me going is my passion and satisfaction in doing criminal work."

Lawyers told The Sunday Times that they do not usually decline to act in pro bono cases. But in cases where the accused seek to hire their services, they may decline when the client's instructions are not reasonable, for instance.

Mr Ong said he declines to act "when a client does not heed my advice, gives conflicting instructions or has unreasonable expectations".

Lawyer Amolat Singh, 61, said it depends in part on the evidence.

"If the suspect is accused of drug consumption and the evidence backs the charge, it would be difficult to go with the client if he insists the sample from his system was from a cough mixture," he said.

Mr Singh noted that there appeared to be no shortage of lawyers willing to handle pro bono cases under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.

For pro bono cases, lawyers are currently paid $500 for those in which the accused pleads guilty and $1,000 for cases involving a trial, he added.

But some lawyers said they wished the public had a better understanding of the role of a lawyer.

A 27-year-old lawyer said that being slammed online can be "demoralising for a lawyer, especially when it is something to do with the profession".

The lawyer, who has not been subjected to such abuse over cases she has handled, said: "We do our best in defending a client and assisting the court, which does not mean we endorse what the client does. There needs to be better public understanding of the lawyer's role through, perhaps, more forms of communication."

The Law Society's co-chairman of its Criminal Law Practice Committee, Mr Wendell Wong, said yesterday that defence lawyers are duty-bound to defend their clients fearlessly. "We do so within the parameters of the law whilst upholding our duty as officers of the court. Some criminal cases may be unpleasant to others but we take them on because access to justice is a fundamental pillar of our society."


As a lawyer , we have to protect the integrity of the system and not recoil... At most, I bite my tongue... and carry on with my duties.


K.C. Vijayan

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.