WP MP Sylvia Lim urges Govt to review criminal justice system, ensure it does not oppress the poor

The Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim has called on the government to review Singapore’s justice system and adopt a two-pronged approach to address the shortcomings, as there is a need to ensure that it is not oppressing the poor and the disadvantage.

Ms Lim, an MP for Aljunied GRC, filed a motion in Parliament on Wednesday (4 Nov) which raised by the case of Parti Liyani, the former Indonesian domestic worker of Changi Group’s ex-chairman Liew Mun Leong.

“By filing this motion, the Workers’ Party is not saying that the system is broken or ineffective. But we believe we should strive to do even better. There is room for improvement in any system,” she noted.

Citing Ms Parti Liyani’s case, Ms Lim raised questions on the extent to which Singapore’s justice system places everyone on equal footing, “whether CEO or domestic worker”.

“The critical question that Ms Parti Liyani’s case has raised is this: How do persons who are disadvantaged navigate the justice system?

“This is a critical question to ask, as Article 12 of the Constitution provides that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law,” she argued.

While Ms Lim noted that Singapore ranks 12th out of 128 countries in the 2020 Rule of Law Index, she pointed out that in certain sub-factors, Singapore’s scores have fallen every year from 2015 to 2020.

Though these rankings were not cited “as gospel truth”, she said it draws attention to the multiple aspects deemed important in assessing a justice system.

Highlighting three key areas in her motion – the plight of the poor in obtaining justice, concerns relating to law enforcement agencies, and justice for crime victims – Ms Lim proposed two-pronged approach for the government to adopt in addressing the shortcomings.

The first prong is to tackle the “low-hanging fruit”, which include composition fines, bail reform, and various law enforcement practices such as statement recording and training, and the position of crime victims.

These can be addressed by the government directly if it is willing to do so, said Ms Lim.

She noted the second prong is to commission an external review of the more complex matters.

“These more complex matters include whether the equal protection of the law under the Constitution is in practice being afforded to the poor, and whether there are institutional cultures or sub-cultures that inadvertently discriminate between rich and poor,” she explained.

For such issues, Ms Lim proposed setting up a Constitutional Commission which headed by a Supreme Court Judge and with members that have expertise in criminology or sociology and experience working with the poor.

On the plight of the poor in getting justice

Ms Lim pointed out that poorer and less educated people are more likely to fall afoul of the law because of their circumstances.

“Today we still see unrepresented accused persons in front of judges, facing a prosecutor who is state-funded and with deep resources. It is unclear what proportion of persons go through the criminal justice system unrepresented,” she said.

These unrepresented persons do not know what to do when prosecutors submit bundles of legal authorities to judges due to their lack of legal knowledge, said Ms Lim.

She also noted that the poor may have difficulty raising the resources needed to engage legal counsel, put up bail money and pay composition fines promptly.

“I have come across residents living in HDB rental flats who had bail set at above S$10,000 for numerous charges of non-violent, regulatory offences like parking and ERP violations.

“This may sound surprising, as many of us consider such offense notices as easily settled through prompt payment of composition fines. But this is not so for those who have insufficient funds to pay and have to attend Court,” said the WP’s member.

With composition fines increasing, Ms Lim suggested that public agencies could consider allowing instalment payments of fines as it would help poorer families cope and “prevent cases from snowballing into bigger court fines, defaults and warrants of arrests”.

Ms Lim also suggested alternatives to money bail in cases where a personal bond is deemed inadequate.

These alternatives include requiring the accused to maintain employment, abide by restrictions on personal associations, residence or travel, to report regularly to a designated agency, or comply with a curfew.

“To get the police and the courts to consider such options, the government could consider amending the Criminal Procedure Code to explicitly require consideration of non-monetary conditions,” she noted.

Concerns relating to law enforcement agencies

Ms Lim also raised concerns relating to law enforcement agencies, noting that the agencies should not have “a culture of preferring the most serious possible charges against accused persons, to leave room for plea bargaining”.

“From my past experience, I also observe that some officers believed that showing moderation in the selection of charges might open them up to allegations of corruption.

“If such defensive behaviour exists today, it will lead to injustice and must be strongly discouraged,” she noted.

Ms Lim pointed out that Ms Parti Liyani’s case had shown that problems can arise with the interpretation of statements recorded in English.

She noted that law enforcement agencies should facilitate the recording of statements in the suspect’s first language, suggesting that the recording of statements should be facilitated in Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

“In addition, the use of video-recording or audio-recording of statements should be expanded to more cases than the current practice of using them for serious sexual crime only,” Ms Lim added.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers should be trained to understand multiculturalism and guard against inadvertent discrimination, she said.

Ms Lim argued that it will be unfair to place blame solely on law enforcement agencies in cases where the prosecution’s case collapses, given that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) may be consulted from time to time during an investigation.

“As far as Ms Parti Liyani case is concerned, I hope that the police investigator does not become a convenient scapegoat to pin all the case’s shortcomings on,” she remarked.

On justice for crime victims

Justice for crime victims was not an issue in Ms Parti Liyani’s case, but it should be highlighted in any review of the system, said Ms Lim.

She noted that crime victims have no say in how criminal cases are conducted as criminal prosecutions are decided by the Public Prosecutor who is the Attorney-General.

“Thus, for instance, the PP [Public Prosecutor] will decide which charge to prefer against the offender, and may even decide not to press charges at all; there is nothing the victim can do to stop that,” said the MP.

Victims may even suffer “secondary victimisation” by the criminal justice process, said Ms Lim, such as if they are disbelieved by law enforcement or subject to ridicule by lawyers during cross-examination in court.

She stressed that more needs to be done to give crime victims confidence that they will be fairly treated by the nation’s justice system.

“For many years, the police have presented Victim Impact Statements in court, to enable judges to hear from victims before sentence is passed on offenders; however I believe this is limited to a small category of offences such as sexual crimes.

“Our laws have also been amended to require judges to consider making compensation order at the sentencing stage, recognizing that the victim may have incurred loss and expense,” Ms Lim asserted.

Though she noted that the State has to take charge of criminal cases to ensure consistency and fairness to accused persons, she pointed out that the system will not function without the assistance from crime victims.

“We need to remember that crime victims deserve justice and deserve to be treated with respect.

“We should review our justice system from the crime victim’s perspective and see how it can be improved, using the UN Declaration as a guide,” she noted.

 

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