Changes must not be at the expense of fair trial, say lawyers

Changes must not be at the expense of fair trial, say lawyers
A lawyer making his way to a court in Singapore. Photo: Channel NewsAsia

Changes must not be at the expense of fair trial, say lawyers

SINGAPORE – Although there is a need to reduce the trauma and stress faced by sexual assault victims in courts, this should not come at the expense of a fair trial, lawyers said on Friday (Feb 17).

They also pointed out that there are current processes in place to ensure that victims do not experience unnecessary duress.

For example, judges can intervene when defence lawyers ask scandalous or vexatious questions during cross-examinations.

As part of the new measures to better protect victims of sexual crimes announced on Friday, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said it will strengthen laws and court processes to reduce the stresses of the court process. This, it added, could include enhancing restrictions on cross-examination in court.

MinLaw is also considering anonymising victims’ identities from the point an allegation is made as well as allowing the use of physical screens, among possible measures, to boost protection of a victim’s privacy.

Criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, head of Quahe Woo & Palmer’s criminal department, said there is a need to be cognizant of the fact that there are accused persons as well as victims who lie, and that the purpose of a trial is to determine who is lying.

“And if one party may be hamstrung as a result of changes that can curtail the cross-examination of victim, that creates an uneven playing ground,” he added.

Mr Adrian Wee, a criminal lawyer at Characterist LLC, noted that imposing additional restrictions on cross-examination is a very “delicate” matter which requires a balancing act.

If further restrictions are introduced, he added that there could potentially be a situation where defence lawyers may have less leeway to cross-examine an alleged sexual assault victim, compared to a victim of other types of crime.

“That’s something that you don’t want to happen. Protection of victims, while important, should not come at the expense of a fair trial for the accused,” said Mr Wee.

Meanwhile, Mr Kalidass Murugaiyan, from Trident Law, agreed that steps should be taken to protect victims in courts, adding that he would welcome a framework that would address this issue.

The lawyer noted that unnecessary stress can be prevented if statements from victims are shared with the defence lawyers, as this will help them to conduct the case and better prepare questions.

He added that sharing the statements with the defence could even help avoid a trial.

“When we have the statements, we could also perhaps advise our clients on whether we should really be fighting this case, when the victim has given a compelling statement corroborated by witnesses,” said Mr Kalidass.