The high-profile case of former domestic worker Parti Liyani must be reviewed robustly to identify potential systemic flaws, and part of the process entails asking difficult and uncomfortable questions in order to get to the root cause of such flaws and reduce miscarriages of justice in the future, said Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal.
Speaking in an interview with Inconvenient Questions (IQ) chief editor Viswa Sadasivan, Mr Singh said — in response to Mr Sadasivan’s question on key lessons to be learned from Ms Parti’s case — that the entire matter should be approached with “balance”.
“I think while errors were made both in the police’s handling of the case and in the way the prosecution may have been conducted and in the decision in the court below … I think it’s important to take a step back to realize that the police, prosecutors and judges daily do great work,” he said.
“When mistakes are made, we must not overlook the very good work that they do on our behalf,” he added while stressing that he is not “prejudging” anything by using the word ‘mistake’ or ‘error’.
However, he went on to say that even while acknowledging the good work done by these parties, “we have got to have the courage to ask the difficult uncomfortable questions so that we can get to the root cause of the mistakes to make sure that there is, or the risks of any miscarriage of justice and future cases are minimized”.
Mr Singh emphasised that the key thing in this case is about how rigorous the process will be in reviewing the errors, mistakes, or oversights in Ms Parti’s case.
Oversights in gathering police evidence, AGC’s decision to prosecute
When asked on what some of these oversights might be, the senior counsel pointed out the way the evidence was collected, in that the police did not go to the ground until five weeks later to catalogue the allegedly stolen items, and not taking these items into custody for almost a year and a half.
He went on to stress that the review, if any, should question whether the police followed protocols when gathering evidence for the case, and identify any possible systemic flaws if they did not.
Noting that there may be a “potential miscarriage of justice” in other cases, Mr Singh questioned if there are other cases “where the police have not been as rigorous or have made similar errors” and if the police will review these other cases.
There may be a “potential miscarriage of justice” in other cases, he said.
Mr Singh also wondered if this information would then be made available to defence counsels, thus giving them an opportunity to reopen some of these cases.
Moving on to the prosecution, he noted that a review should look into the prosecutor’s handling of the case, given that the Attorney-General’s Chambers has the discretion on whether to charge people or not.
“Did they consider these flaws in the evidence gathering process and did they entertain any doubts about the Liew family’s allegations?
“If no doubts were entertained, given what the High Court judge has highlighted, shouldn’t these doubts have been properly and more carefully evaluated before deciding to charge Ms Liyani?” He questioned.
Mr Singh stressed that if these questions are raised, it would allow for the identification of any systemic issues that need to be addressed and uncover possible biases in the organisation of the police or the prosecution.
It is an opportunity to discover and address potential systemic flaws
When prompted that some errors might just be genuine mistakes and not necessarily systemic flaws, Mr Singh stressed: “One should not assume these were purely individual lapses. One should always keep an open mind to consider if they are deeper issues.”
Further in the interview, Mr Singh also extolled the importance of the process as well, saying: “I think that process is important for both sides. I think for Ms Liyani and her team, it’s important to know where they feel lines are crossed. There is a process to deal with it and that the system is open.”
“At the same time, for the prosecutors in question, it’s important that if there is an explanation for the conduct, this is a process for them to be publicly vindicated, and there will be a reasoned judgment at the end of it,” he added.
Expanding on that, Mr Singh noted that while it is a rather “dark season” for the prosecutors, the review process, though painful, will be robust—led by a senior judge, retired High Court judge, or senior council—and will give them a chance to be “fully vindicated”.
On whether it is unusual to ask for such a review, Mr Singh said that the legal profession does indeed provide for it, though he is “not aware of any such applications moving beyond the complaint stage”.
Even so, Mr Singh does not think it would be a landmark event if the Supreme Court decides to proceed with the application for a review, though he says it will still be an important part of the process.
He also cautioned that even if the Deputy Public Prosecutors are found to have breached their ethical duty in their handling of Ms Parti’s case, mistakes are made in the “heat of the battle” and that “it shouldn’t define who they are, provided they are prepared to take a frank assessment of what went wrong and to learn from that”.
“I don’t think, you know, in that sense, we should come down that hard unless you’ve got very, very clear and strong evidence that there was dishonesty involved, there were deliberate wrongdoing notwithstanding they knew that she was innocent as far as the DPP charges are concerned,” said Mr Singh.
We have to ask difficult questions in order to bring about meaningful change
Towards the end of the interview, the senior counsel took a moment to reiterate the importance of the process itself.
“For any real change to take place in any country, Singapore or elsewhere, I think a few things are critical. One is you must never ever stop asking the difficult and uncomfortable questions publicly and internally,” said Mr Singh.
He also highlighted the importance of a coming together of the younger and older generation in collaborating for meaningful change.
Finally, he noted the need for “moral courage” in individuals within and outside of the system to speak out on important issues.
“To me, change is about standing up. It’s about speaking up and not being overly concerned about whether you’re going to get the results in the short term.
“Every time you speak, you send out a certain ripple. And when someone else speaks, there’s another ripple and you do not know how the universe is going to join these ripples and bring about the change but it’s key to speak up,” stressed Mr Singh.
Penal Code protects vulnerable migrant workers against harm, but little recourse under S’pore justice system to defend themselves against accusations: Parti Liyani’s defence lawyer Anil Balchandani
In a video interview with HOME on 23 August this year — after Ms Parti’s appeal and before the High Court judgement was delivered — Ms Parti’s lawyer Anil Balchandani 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”.
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.
Mr Anil 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.
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.
Justice Chan Seng Onn of the High Court on 4 September this year overturned the conviction and jail sentence passed down by Judge 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.