While Singapore’s Penal Code protects vulnerable migrant workers such as domestic helpers against harm committed against them, there is little recourse under the country’s criminal justice system for them to defend themselves against accusations, said lawyer Anil Balchandani of Red Lion Circle.
Mr Anil made headlines recently alongside Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) for their pivotal role in advocating the innocence of former domestic worker Parti Liyani against theft charges.
The theft charges pertained to S$34,000 worth of items belonging to Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family.
Justice Chan Seng Onn of the High Court last week overturned the conviction and 26-month jail sentence passed down by District Judge Olivia Low to Ms Parti last year in the State Courts, effectively clearing the Indonesian national of all charges made against her.
Justice Chan found that Mr Liew and Mr Karl’s actions demonstrated “improper motives” in terminating Ms Parti’s employment and making the police report against her.
He stressed that the prosecution had failed to demonstrate that there was no improper motive by Mr Liew and Mr Karl in making the police report against Ms Parti “just two days” after she made an express threat to alert the Ministry of Manpower about her illegal deployment to the latter’s residence and office.
In a video interview with HOME on 23 August 2020 — after Ms Parti’s appeal and before the High Court judgement was delivered — Mr Anil said that the lack of “proper representation” of migrant workers such as domestic workers is bound to lead to “problems down the line”.
“Problems down the line end up being problems with our justice system, where foreign domestic workers or foreign workers just don’t know what they’re up against, they don’t know who to turn to.
“They feel that it’s convenient, or they are given the impression that it’s just convenient to apologise and plead guilty, and they’ll be sent home, which is what they really want after a little while of being accused and interrogated. And that in itself is an injustice,” he said.
Mr Anil, who acted pro bono for Ms Parti, highlighted that while Singapore protects “these vulnerable workers under our Penal Code if harm is done onto them, our criminal justice system doesn’t necessarily protect them when there’s an accusation against them”.
WATCH: Parti Liyani’s counsel Anil Balchandani speaks to HOME about her case and the challenges faced by accused vulnerable migrant workers in Singapore’s criminal justice system
Under Section 73(1) of Singapore’s Penal Code, an employer, a household member of the employer, or the employment agent of a domestic worker found guilty of an offence under the Code may be subject to “twice the maximum punishment” the court could mete out for the particular offence.
Activist Kokila Annamalai, in her article on the HOME website, noted that Mr Anil has similarly represented a migrant worker who was accused of a rash act.
The SMRT bus driver was acquitted after 37 months, including a 26-day trial.
Ms Kokila also noted that Mr Anil has represented a youth accused of drug trafficking charges, in which he managed to secure probation for his client. The youth was facing 20 years in jail and 15 strokes of the cane.
Mr Anil, in his interview with HOME, said that while it may be satisfying to be “able to technically solve a case” and to find a “guilty person”, he stressed that in certain circumstances “it may not really be that it is the right person, or it may not be even a crime — it’s just a blank or bald accusation”.
Stressing that proper representation entails that on a political level, he said that “without this representation, you don’t know until something terrible happens”.
“Now, it’s easy to say the criminal justice system is busted and we need to fix it, but I think as we move forward, and as we get a little more advanced as a nation, we need to realise that the system as we envisioned it doesn’t cater for these unrepresented folks,” Mr Anil stressed.
Responding to TOC’s question on how much Ms Parti’s defence would have cost, Mr Anil told a press conference last Friday (4 September) that it may have totalled up to S$130,000 for work done for the State Court trial and High Court appeal, and S$20,000 for work that was done outside of the law firm, based on Red Lion Circle’s rates.
Background of Parti Liyani’s case
Ms Parti was convicted in March last year of stealing items belonging to Mr Liew and his family — his son Mr Karl in particular.
Ms Parti’s employment was abruptly terminated on 28 Oct 2016.
Mr Liew had asked Mr Karl to oversee Ms Parti’s termination and repatriation process to Indonesia, as the former was abroad at the time.
Prior to being sent back to her home country, Ms Parti was given only three hours to pack her belongings despite having worked for the family for almost nine years.
Mr Liew subsequently reported the purported theft on 30 October the same year after returning to Singapore.
Less than two months later, Ms Parti was arrested at Changi Airport on 2 December upon her return to Singapore.
Judge Low sentenced Ms Parti to two years and two months of jail after removing items from and reducing value on the allegedly stolen items that Mr Anil had successfully disproved in the State Courts hearing.
The prosecution originally sought a three-year jail sentence.