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AGC addressing gaps, raising accountability

AGC addressing gaps, raising accountability

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 12 Jan 2021
Author: Selina Lum

AGC will also reinforce efforts to demystify the inner workings of the prosecution, by explaining its charging decisions and educating the public on the criminal justice system through the media.

Attorney-General Lucien Wong has spelt out steps to address institutional gaps and provide greater accountability to the public.

The training and guidance for prosecutors are being reviewed, while internal guidelines have been drawn up and briefings held to help prosecutors consider their obligations to disclose documents to the defence.

In response to the lessons from the Parti Liyani case, the prosecution is working with the police on guidelines for recording statements and obtaining valuations of items alleged to be stolen.

The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) will also reinforce efforts to demystify the inner workings of the prosecution, by explaining its charging decisions and educating the public on the criminal justice system through the media.

Mr Wong acknowledged that imperfections in the past year exposed his organisation to intense scrutiny and criticism.

But he pledged that it will do better in carrying out its fundamental duty to assist the court in making the correct decision.

He also made it clear that he would not allow the fear of failure or public backlash to stand in the way of AGC's duty of prosecuting worthy cases fairly.

In his speech at the annual ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year, Mr Wong talked about how, amid the battle against Covid-19, prosecutors also had to weather "our own crisis of sorts".

"What made 2020 uniquely challenging was a sense that the public's trust in us was at stake. That is something we take extremely seriously because that trust is fundamental to our mission, and we work very hard to be worthy of it," he said.

He identified the cases of Ms Parti Liyani and Gobi Avedian as among the several decisions that did not go in favour of AGC.

The case of Ms Parti, a former domestic worker who was acquitted of stealing from her employer, sparked public uproar and led to a nine-hour parliamentary debate over the criminal justice system. The two prosecutors are now facing a disciplinary inquiry.

Gobi, a Malaysian drug runner, was acquitted of a capital charge. He has filed a civil suit against Mr Wong and other prosecutors.

Mr Wong stressed that AGC's motive was not to win at all cost but to reach just outcomes fairly.

Charging decisions are made only after prosecutors are satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable prospect of conviction, and that it is in the public interest to prosecute.

He said his team of 245 prosecutors assesses over 40,000 investigation papers a year. That number excludes court appearances in more than 7,000 matters.

Not every acquittal, however, is a sign that prosecutors have failed in their duty, he said.

He cited the case of a nursing home worker who had molested an elderly patient. The case was difficult to prosecute as it depended largely on an eyewitness account.

The man was initially convicted but was acquitted by the High Court due to "evidential difficulties".

The prosecution then referred the case to the Court of Appeal, and the conviction was reinstated.

"If we refrain from prosecuting whenever there is some risk of an acquittal, then this injustice - and many others - would never see the light of day," said Mr Wong.

AGC reviewing training for prosecutors

Training and guidance for prosecutors are being reviewed to strengthen the administration of justice, Attorney-General Lucien Wong said, noting that "imperfections" in the past year have exposed his chambers to "intense scrutiny and criticism".

Internal guidance has been drawn up and division-wide briefings held to help prosecutors fulfil their obligations to disclose documents to the defence, said Mr Wong, who was speaking at the opening of Legal Year 2021 on Monday.

"A key tenet of prosecutorial training is that all prosecutions should be guided by the public interest. Our culture must be one where prosecutors take pride in doing right, not just by victims of crime, but also by accused persons and by society," he said.

His speech made reference to the case of foreign domestic worker Parti Liyani, who in October was acquitted of stealing more than S$34,000 worth of items from the household of Liew Mun Leong, the former chairman of Singapore's Changi Airport.

The high-profile case sparked public outcry, with questions raised about the evidence-gathering process and the way in which the trial was conducted.

Ms Parti has launched disciplinary proceedings against two prosecutors who handled her case at the district court trial. She is also seeking compensation from the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), under a provision that allows acquitted persons compensation if it can be proven that prosecution was frivolous or vexatious.

Drawing from this case, the prosecution is working with the police on internal guidelines for proper recording of investigative statements and obtaining valuations for items which are the subject of property offences, Mr Wong noted.

He stressed that acquittals indicate a healthy legal system, and should not be regarded as a sign that prosecutors have failed in their duty as ministers of justice.

"(Acquittals) demonstrate that judges probe the prosecution's case and apply their minds fairly and independently. More importantly, acquittals also show that AGC does not only pursue cases which are easy wins, but also cases where we truly believe that an offence has been committed and must be addressed," Mr Wong said.

During the ceremony on Monday, which was held virtually for the first time, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon also spoke at length on securing fairness in the criminal justice system, making reference as well to Ms Parti's case.

While noting that judges and judicial officers are selected based on a stringent set of criteria, Mr Menon said it would be "naive, even foolhardy" to consider judges infallible.

In Ms Parti's case, High Court judge Chan Seng Onn was confronted with a responsibility to set things right, where things might have "gone amiss at first instance", he noted.

Mr Menon cautioned against premature criticisms of the judiciary and imputations of bad faith while processes are ongoing.

"It is imperative that one not rush to judgment and condemn errors in the judicial process as suggestive of bad faith or impropriety. Where there is reason to think that there might have been misconduct, steps will be taken in accordance with the applicable processes, and these must be allowed to take their course," he said.

"Premature criticism and imputations of bad faith are not only unhelpful but can be antithetical to due process. They unfairly undermine public trust and confidence in the very institutions that are fundamental to the Rule of Law."

Mr Menon also highlighted the development of training programmes for the judiciary in recent years, including increasing opportunities for High Court judges to mentor judicial officers in the State and Family Justice Courts.

Reflecting on the post-pandemic legal landscape, Mr Menon said the courts are looking at various ways to streamline and simplify processes, such as through the use of technology and encouraging the adoption of alternative dispute resolution processes. "This may require us to start thinking beyond a purely adversarial 'winner-takes-all' approach in relation to legal services in certain areas," he added.

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


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