Benjamin Lim's family calls for the new scheme to ensure young suspects below the age of 16 are accompanied during police interviews, to be extended in every case, and not subjected to police's discretion on when or at which point to call in the trained volunteers.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has announced on Friday (6 January) that young suspects below the age of 16, will be accompanied by an independent volunteer while being interviewed by the police, starting from April 2017 under a new Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS).
This come after a review by the Education Ministry, Ministry of Social and Family Development, and the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), lead by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the wake of Benjamin Lim's case. The review concluded that while existing processes are generally sound, some adjustments will be made to improve coordination between agencies.
Benjamin was a 14-year-old secondary-three student from North View Secondary who committed suicide by jumping off from his unit at fourteen storey on 29 January. On that day itself, he was interviewed by the police alone without any adult supervision for his alleged involvement in a case of outrage of modesty.
TOC reported on the side of the story from the family's view and has not changed its stance on the matter. The story was viewed more than a million times and shared on various social media platforms, spurring debates on the practice by the police to bar anyone from accompanying minors during police interviews.
As a follow up to the public outcry over the incident, the Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam spoke on the matter in a Parliamentary session. While the minister defended the police action on how the interview of the secondary-three student was conducted and attacked the then-President of Law Society and TOC in Parliament, but nevertheless he still called for a review of the protocols in light of the growing concern by public on the safety and rights of their children.
The new scheme will be expanded upon the existing appropriate adult scheme which was initially introduced in 2015 to provide assistance to persons with intellectual or mental disability (PWIDs) who are required to give a statement to the Police during investigation.
In response to the introduction of the new scheme, Benjamin's family wrote that they are encouraged by the proposed implementation of the Appropriate Adult scheme for minors and that this is a move towards the correct direction.
"In fact, we opined that an Appropriate Adult should be present right from the beginning after the police acted on the young suspect. It must be of utmost priority to let the child understand that he or she is not alone under all circumstances." wrote the family in their response to TOC.
However, they expressed their grief that this review and proposed scheme comes after the loss of their family member.
They also noted that while trained volunteers is an added advantage but these volunteers may not necessarily be comforting for the child, given the stress that the child is placed under during the police interview.
Below is the response from Benjamin's family in full:
As concerned party, we are encouraged by the proposed implementation of the Appropriate Adult scheme for minors. This is a move towards the correct direction. We, however, are deeply sadden that this review and proposed scheme comes after the lost of one young life. We call for the scheme to be extended in every case, and not subjected to police's discretion on when or at which point to call in the trained volunteers. In fact, we opined that an Appropriate Adult should be present right from the beginning after the police acted on the young suspect. It must be of utmost priority to let the child understand that he or she is not alone under all circumstances.
In Benjamin's case, the police went in a group of five to Northview Secondary School. Although it was later ascertained that only one officer interviewed Benjamin in the presence of school officials, the fact that five went to the school from the very beginning remains an undisputed fact. We are disappointed that the review committee did not address this crucial point on why is there a need for such an excessive numbers of officers to visit a school when appeared that two is sufficient to do the job. We urge the authority to review the operational procedures for such cases so as not to cause unnecessary embarrassment and duress for the child during school hours.
We are of the view that the Appropriate Adult is best to be someone familiar to the young suspect. We understand that the Appropriate Adult must remain neutral, must not disrupt the course of justice in any way. However, having a familiar person around when the child is being interviewed in the police station is not likely to interfere with investigation. Trained volunteers are of course an added advantage but these volunteers may not necessarily be comforting for the child.
We noted that MOE said it will introduce more measures to support students under investigation, which will include getting a familiar staff member to accompany the student in the police vehicle. This is a good suggestion but will it be better to wait for the arrival of parents or legal guardian before allowing the student to leave the school with police officer? In the event parents or legal guardian are not contactable or unavailable, then deploy a familiar staff member to accompany the student to the police station.