Jolene Tan: Every person subject to police interview should be allowed to get legal counsel, including work permit holders

Earlier on 30 September, Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng noted that he will raise the question in Parliament on whether foreign domestic workers and other work permit holders could be accompanied by non-legal personnel during police interviews.

This came after the ballot result, in which Mr Ng’s motion to speak about secondhand smoke issues was selected over the motion put forth by the Workers’ Party (WP) MP Sylvia Lim on enhancing equity in the criminal justice system, sparked anger among netizens.

In response, Mr Ng said that he will speak on both issues and will ask the Minister of Home Affairs on whether work permit holders can have similar access to Appropriate Adult Scheme in police interviews.

Appropriate Adult Scheme is intended for suspects under 16 years old to be accompanied by “an appropriate adult” during police interviews, as stated on the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) website.

The “appropriate adult” is a “neutral party” that helps to provide emotional support to the suspect and facilitates communications where necessary.

One has to note that a lawyer cannot be an appropriate adult and this scheme relies on volunteers who cannot be depended on to turn up for every interview. This pilot scheme which was introduced after the death of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim, is also not mandatory for the Police to follow and there has not been any public announcement to set it as formal procedures.

Meanwhile, activist and author Jolene Tan highlighted that “every person subject to police interview should have the right to immediate access to legal counsel” including work permit holders.

Commenting on Mr Ng’s parliamentary question on allowing work permit holders to have access to “Appropriate Adult Scheme” in police interviews, Ms Tan said that getting a neutral party for the suspect is “totally inadequate”.

“The Law Society also describes the role [neutral party] as ‘to help the PWID [disabled person] communicate more effectively during the police interview so that the PWID does not misunderstand the questions asked or that he is not misunderstood by the Investigation Officer’.”

“A ‘neutral party’ isn’t good enough. You need someone with training and authority whose job is to look out for the rights and interests of the suspect,” she wrote on Facebook on Friday (2 Oct).

Ms Tan explained that the absence of legal counsel in cases involving minors is “particularly egregious” as “there is no one in the room whose role is to look out for the best interest of the child”.

“The idea that in all state processes pertaining to children, the best interests of the child must be secured happens to be the cornerstone of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Singapore is party. ‘Emotional support’ from a ‘neutral party’ doesn’t cut the mustard.”

Citing the case of former domestic worker Parti Liyani, Ms Tan questioned the rationale of having an “appropriate adult” to assist Ms Parti.

“In the case of Parti Liyani, what could an ‘appropriate adult’ have done about the unsecured boxes that might have resulted in contaminated evidence? What could the ‘appropriate adult’ have done about the fact that migrants unable to work during the legal process face huge economic pressure to plead guilty even if they are innocent?

“What could the ‘appropriate adult’ do about the prosecution misrepresenting the DVD player as functional on the basis of a very partial demonstration?

“Even in the matter specific to communication during the police interview: would this ‘appropriate adult’ even be a trained interpreter? Would they know or be authorised to demand one? If the answer to these questions is no, what is the point of them?” she asked.

Noting that the issue is not simply about work permit holders or other vulnerable individuals being “psychologically frail to hold on their own”, Ms Tan implied that they need a legal counsel to help them understand the legal rules and consequences.

“Fundamentally, being in contact with the criminal justice system means that your liberty, well-being and sometimes even life are at risk depending on how you make your way through a labyrinth of legal rules.

“What you need is someone there who knows those rules and can help you navigate them in an informed manner, with an understanding of the legal meaning and possible consequences of what is going on; someone who can join the dots between what is going on now and what might happen to you later; someone who is responsible for looking out for your interests and governed by strict and informed professional ethics. You need a lawyer.”

 

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