The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and its prosecutors will be deterred neither by acquittals nor by “baseless lawsuits or actions” in carrying out prosecutions they believe are in the public interest, said Singapore Attorney-General Lucien Wong.
Delivering his speech at the opening of the Legal Year 2021 on Monday (11 January), Mr Wong said that while there were “several decisions that did not go our way”, including in the cases of Parti Liyani and Gobi Avedian, “acquittals are a sign of health for the legal system”.
Ms Parti was acquitted by the High Court in September last year of theft charges involving items totalling S$50,000 from ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family members.
The High Court in its decision noted that the prosecution had failed to demonstrate that there was no improper motive by the senior Liew and his son Karl in making the police report against Ms Parti “just two days” after she made an expressed threat to alert the MOM about her illegal deployment to the latter’s residence and office.
In Mr Gobi’s case, the Court of Appeal in October last year set aside the death sentence of the 32-year-old Malaysian death row inmate on the account of a miscarriage of justice.
In the Court of Appeal judgement in which Mr Gobi’s sentence was set aside, it was noted that while the prosecution’s case against him during the trial was about wilful blindness, it is “undisputed” that the prosecution’s case on appeal was that of actual knowledge.
The Court of Appeal judges reasoned that Gobi’s conviction of the capital charge would only remain safe if the prosecution had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was wilfully blind to the nature of the drugs — which it did not.
Consequently, the Court of Appeal reinstated a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane, which was imposed in respect of the earlier amended charge. The court also backdated the sentence to the date of Mr Gobi’s remand.
“They demonstrate that judges probe the Prosecution’s case and apply their minds fairly and independently,” Mr Wong said of the cases’ outcome.
Similar to Ms Parti’s case, Filipina former domestic worker Portela Vilma Jimenez‘s conviction for theft was overturned by the High Court last year.
Ms Jimenez’s lawyers had argued that the District Judge hearing the case had filled in gaps for the Prosecution’s case, which the High Court agreed with.
In both Ms Parti and Ms Jimenez’s cases, they were not given interpreters for Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog respectively during the police’s statement-taking.
Recognising that 2020 was a challenging year for the AGC, as public trust in the chambers was placed at stake in the wake of the aforementioned cases, Mr Wong said that “there were imperfections in the past year that exposed AGC to intense scrutiny and criticism”.
He said, however, that acquittals also demonstrate that the AGC “does not only pursue cases which are easy wins, but also cases where we truly believe that an offence has been committed and must be addressed”.
“The real measure of AGC as an institution does not lie in the number of convictions we secure, but in prosecuting worthy cases fairly and upholding the public interest,” he said.
Thus, the AGC “will not allow the fear of failure or of public backlash to stand in the way of this duty”.
“Our motive is not to win at all costs, or to secure the most convictions, but to reach just outcomes fairly. This overriding principle informs every stage of our work.
“Let me stress this clearly – neither acquittals nor baseless lawsuits or actions commenced against my Chambers or my prosecutors will deter us from fulfilling our mission to prosecute in the public interest,” said Mr Wong.
Elaborating further on the process in deciding to prosecute cases, Mr Wong said that the AGC carefully considers “all available evidence, the circumstances of each case and each accused person, as well as what is fair and proportionate”.
“Every prosecution is commenced in the genuine belief that a crime has been committed and needs to be answered for,” he said.
This assessment continues “continues even after a person is charged in Court”, and should “new facts and circumstances come to light” demonstrating that it is no longer tenable to prosecute a particular case, the AGC “will review the matter and withdraw charges”, said Mr Wong.
Mr Wong also noted that prosecutors “take great care to comply with our disclosure obligations in fairness to the Defence”.
“At the sentencing stage, it is our established practice to highlight the most relevant precedents even if they are unfavourable to us, so that the Court may have the fullest possible assistance in arriving at the appropriate sentence.
“Even after a matter has been concluded, we do not oppose criminal revisions and appeals where we agree, upon review, that the outcome at first instance did not serve the public interest,” he said.
Reviewing prosecutor training, working jointly with police on guidelines for recording investigative statements “properly” part of AGC’s move to improve processes following Parti Liyani case: A-G Lucien Wong
Moving forward after the Parti Liyani case, Mr Wong said that the AGC is putting in place measures such as reviewing the training received by its prosecutors and working with police on internal guidelines for recording investigative statements properly to improve its handling of cases.
He added that the AGC is also working on internal guidelines to ensure that proper valuations of items in property offences will be carried out in future cases.
“These guidelines will make our approach to these matters more principled and consistent across cases,” said Mr Wong.
The AGC has also “engaged all prosecutors in the process of re-imagining our role in criminal proceedings”, which goes “beyond mere technical compliance with disclosure and evidentiary rules”, he added.
“To preserve and also enhance the public’s trust in us, AGC will reinforce our efforts to demystify the inner workings of prosecution, and make the criminal legal system as a whole more accessible and intelligible to the public,” said Mr Wong.
In cases that have garnered widespread public interest, the AGC had sought to “articulate the basis of our decisions more clearly and to clarify any misinformation in the public sphere”, said the Attorney-General.
“In the Orchard Towers murder case, for example, we issued media releases to explain our charging and sentencing positions, and to refute malicious and utterly baseless allegations of racial bias in sentencing.
“In Parti Liyani’s case, we also issued media releases to clarify the process by which the charging decision was made, so as to dispel any misconception that the complainant was given special treatment or that I was somehow involved in the charging decision in view of my prior acquaintance with him,” said Mr Wong.
Mr Wong also noted that the AGC has partnered with Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao on a series of articles about Singapore’s legal system and the AGC’s role within it, including on topics such as plea discussions, gag orders and court procedures.
“We are also reaching out to the public through vernacular media to make sure that every Singaporean knows that there is no preferential treatment for different races in sentencing,” he said.
While the AGC does not “shy from” criticisms “as long as they are fair, Mr Wong said that “not every acquittal is a sign that our prosecutors have failed in their duty as ministers of justice”.
“Some acquittals may result precisely because we took steps which served the interests of justice but were adverse to our case, for instance, by sharing evidence with the Defence.
“Other times, there may be changes in the evidence or to the law which we could not have anticipated. There will be cases where, at the end of the day, the evidence falls just shy of establishing all the elements of the offence,” said Mr Wong.
At the end of his speech, Mr Wong congratulated several members of the judiciary, including Justice Chan Seng Onn for the extension of their appointments as Judges of the High Court.
Justice Chan was the judge who had acquitted Ms Parti in September last year after hearing her appeal against the theft charges she was earlier found guilty for in the State Courts.
Mr Wong did not, however, mention Justice Chan’s role in the Indonesian national’s case.
Netizens criticised Mr Wong’s labelling of “systemic” lapses as “imperfections”, saying that the failures that occurred as seen in Ms Parti’s case signal “incompetent leadership” in the AGC and law enforcement bodies.
Several netizens pointed out that public trust in the AGC is at stake due to Mr Wong’s background as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s former personal lawyer.
As PM Lee’s then-personal lawyer prior to his appointment as Attorney-General, Mr Wong took part in handling the legal dispute surrounding the 38 Oxley Road property — the late Lee Kuan Yew’s family home.
Mr Wong’s appointment as Attorney-General on 16 January 2017 was mired by controversy.
While Mr Wong’s predecessor V K Rajah SC — who was appointed Attorney-General on 25 Jun 2014 — ended his service in the position on 14 Jan 2017 upon reaching the retirement age of 60 years, Mr Wong was 63 years old at the time of his appointment for the first term of his tenure.
Mr Wong was reappointed as Attorney-General at the age of 67 years old last year. He will be 70 at the end of his second term as the Attorney-General.
Article 35(4) of the Constitution stipulates that the Attorney-General may be appointed for a specific period and — subject to clause (6) — vacate his office at the end of the period.
The Attorney-General is permitted to hold office until the age of 60 years old.
However, according to Section 35(4)(b), an Attorney-General who has reached 60 years of age may remain in office for a fixed period of time agreed between the Attorney-General and the Government upon the President’s discretion, if the President takes up the advice of the Prime Minister.
One netizen remarked that technically, Mr Wong does not have to retire, as “he was already 63 when appointed and will never reach the age of 60 for mandatory retirement”.