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Thio Shen Yi, president of Singapore Law Society (Photo - TSMP LAW CORPORATION)

Review on system not just about Benjamin’s death: Law Society’s president

In the February issue of the Singapore Law Gazette, the Law Society’s president, Thio Shen Yi argued for better protection of suspects, especially minors, by granting them early access to counsel.

Benjamin Lim is a 14-year-old boy who jumped to his death following a two-hour police interview. His mother’s request to be present during the interview was denied.

Explaining why her request was denied, Mr Thio wrote:

The simple answer is that there is no legal requirement for parents to be present in the interview room when a minor is involved.

The reason for this as explained by Mr Lionel de Souza, ambassador for the National Crime Prevention Council is because: "A police investigation is about searching for the truth. Having a parent in the same room with the accused would hamper this search, because they will not be neutral parties”.

This belief that the police’s investigation will be hampered by the presence of lawyers is also the reason why the law does not grant suspects the right of immediate access to counsel.

Thio argues that this is especially problematic for children because they are more easily terrified than adults and because “a stressful interrogation can extract what the interrogator is looking for, which may, or may not, be the truth.”

“There are plenty of empirical psychological studies that strongly suggest that people of sound mind and temperament can be made to confess to something that they didn’t do,” he adds.

Acknowledging that there is a need to balance police effectiveness and protection for the accused, Thio points out that “this incident forces us to contemplate the potentially catastrophic cost of getting the balance wrong.”

His position is that suspects should be granted near immediate or at worst, early access to counsel. Responding to the argument that access to lawyers may hamper police investigations, Mr Thio argues:

It cannot be the case that our well-trained, well-resourced, first world police force will be stymied in their investigations by something as anodyne as the presence of parents or lawyers. Perhaps the time is right to fast forward this discussion and reboot our thinking.

Mr Thio cites four nearby countries to show that it is possible to protect suspects while still allowing the police to do their work effectively. In Malaysia, Hong Kong, India and Taiwan, suspects are allowed to consult a lawyer before or during his interrogation. However, reasonable limits may be imposed, such as in India where the lawyer may not be present throughout the entire interrogation.

Asking that Singapore learn from the experience of other legal jurisdictions, Mr Thio reiterates that early access to counsel creates a justice system where we can “safely rely on the fairness of the convictions and acquittals.” This, he believes, “is a necessity in ensuring sustainable confidence in our criminal justice system.”

Is it fair to the arrested person or suspect if they can only talk to a lawyer days (or a couple of weeks) after the investigation? Intimidation, coercion or psychological manipulation can come in many forms, is often subtle, and may even be unintentional. In the context of an investigation by the police, which is inherently stressful, surely every suspect is vulnerable? The precise level of vulnerability is just a matter of degree. This must ultimately devalue the reliability of the statements (let alone confessions) given under those circumstances. The trial should not start, and for all intents and purposes end, at the police station.

In addition, Thio asks if the investigative process may “unintentionally cause avoidable psychological trauma and long-term distress.”

“If Benjamin’s death was avoidable with a better system in place, then it is one death too many. But it is not just about Benjamin,” he said.

Thio concluded by making an appeal to fellow lawyers:

The role of the Bar, as stakeholders in the Criminal Justice System, is to give our clients, and victims, a sense of confidence, to tell them that they can trust the system, it is not perfect, but it is largely fair and transparent, and is ultimately aimed at generating just outcomes. Can we at the Bar genuinely say that yet? We can do better. We must do better. And we should do it together.

On 22 January, days before Benjamin’s death, Law Minister K Shanmugam said that the Ministry of Law was looking into substantive reforms in civil and criminal law.

On 1 February, The Singapore Police Force announced that it would conduct a review of its procedures when interviewing a minor. There have been no updates yet.