The notion that someone is innocent until proven guilty is a term that is so widely used but when it comes to high profile cases where emotions run high, public perception, amplified by the use of social media platforms, can prejudge the accused. It is important to understand the rights of the individual and to trust the justice system to come up with a fair outcome. An accused is just that, an accused. He or she is charged with an offence. There is still no conviction and yet there will invariably be some individuals who will think that that person is guilty before the justice process has been allowed to run its course.
On top of the accused having to deal with public displeasure, the accused has to face navigating a justice system that he or she may be unfamiliar with.
It is spelt out in section 9(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore that where a person is arrested, he shall be informed as soon as may be of the grounds of his arrest and shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.
This section states that where a person is arrested, he shall be informed of the reason for his arrest. He is also allowed to choose his own lawyer for his defence and to consult that lawyer. Yet this section leaves some ambiguity in the phrase “as soon as may be” and does not state when he shall be allowed to consult his lawyer.
Singapore does lay its laws out freely for all to refer to. However, it is extremely rare for the man on the street to know what rights he has if he is ever arrested. When a person is arrested, the investigation process will have to adhere to the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). Yet the accused may have never encountered the CPC much less know how to interpret the statute.
In section 22(2) of the CPC, it states:
The person examined shall be bound to state truly what he knows of the facts and circumstances of the case, except that he need not say anything that might expose him to a criminal charge, penalty or forfeiture.
This section gives the accused the right not to say anything that might incriminate him. Yet to most people who have never had to deal with the statute, this may not be apparent to them. Without the lawyer next to the accused, the accused may not know his rights as spelt out in the CPC. If we are confident in the competency and fairness of our courts, surely letting the accused know of such rights or having access to his lawyer should not make a difference to the eventual outcome. Thus it is important to understand that criminal lawyers championing for the rights of the accused does not equate to criminal lawyers trying to help an otherwise guilty individual get away with murder. In some cases, literally. This is purely applying the notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty in a fair court. Think about the possibility of an innocent man, wrongly accused of a crime that he did not commit, not knowing his rights in accordance with the CPC. If we were to apply such rights to those who are wrongly accused, we have to extend the same rights across the board to all who are accused. Rightly or wrongly.
There are some who think that to ensure that all guilty are charged, we will invariably convict some who are innocent. I though subscribe to the idea that I would rather let a few who are possibly guilty walk away rather than convict an innocent man. I guess there is no correct answer to this. However, the criminal bar must be seen as a bastion for all who are accused and not impeding the prosecution of the guilty. It is highly possible that an innocent man may not be mentally and financially strong enough to go through the process of proving his innocence and plead guilty to get it over and done with. He may not know that a conviction may have possible repercussions.
This is why I am hoping that Singapore will eventually have a public defenders office!