Prosecutorial Discretion: A Critical Evaluation

This article was written in 2008 by Ms. Ng Sook Zhen, who was then Deputy Editor of the SLR. It was featured in Vol. 4, Issue 5 of that year.

William O. Douglas, the longest-serving Justice of the Supreme Court of the United State once mused: “Absolute discretion is a ruthless master. It is more destructive of freedom than of any man’s other inventions.” Indeed, while internal guidelines ensure that prosecutorial discretion is less than absolute in Singapore, the Public Prosecutor (officially the Attorney-general on whose authority the Deputy Public Prosecutors act) is undeniably a very important actor in the local criminal justice system.

As Mr Winston Cheng, Deputy Public Prosecutor of the Attorney-General’s Chambers admitted during a talk held in NUS law school on March 18 this year: “We have the sole discretion in the institution, conduct and discontinuation of criminal procedure.”

This discretion operates on two-folds.

First, public prosecutors decide what to prosecute, looking at each crime committed on a case-by-case basis. The decision on whether to prosecute, as Mr Cheng noted, is “not for the sole purpose of obtaining a conviction”. “If a person is a first offender, is a student and is remorseful, you are not going to put him on a trial.”

The second form of discretion – and often the unwilling result of the sheer volume of cases to be reviewed – is the length of time taken to bring a case to trial. The usual lag time between when an offence is committed and when it is prosecuted in court is estimated to be about one to two years, depending on the complexity of the cases.

But there is no limitation period for criminal offences locally, and public prosecutors may choose to prosecute a case well beyond the time after it was committed. The case of Chan Kum Hong Randy v Public Prosecutor [2008] SGHC 20 (High Court) [Chan], for instance, showed that long lag times are not rare occurrences. In Chan, six to ten years elapsed between the detection of the offences committed and the actual prosecution.

“As a result of the delay in the prosecution, the appellant faces the prospect of having to suffer not once but twice the pain and hardship of incarceration as well as the rigours of reintegration into a society,” said Justice VK Rajah, who headed the appeal. (Chan at [50])

And the worry about discretion does not just stop there. Currently there is little publicly available information about this discretion process, and the lack of transparency is fast growing into a pressing concern. This issue was further highlighted in section 2 of the Workers’ Party Manifesto 2006, which read: “The real power to determine the offender’s sentence shifts from the Courts to the prosecution who will decide which to proceed on to produce the appropriate sentence. This encourages plea-bargaining which makes justice less transparent as the exercise of prosecutorial discretion cannot be reviewed or appealed against.”

Although Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister of State for Law had announced during the 2007 Budget Debate that more disclosure measures would be introduced, no official response has yet to be implemented. Given unseen guidelines and unarticulated rationales, until more disclosure measures are in place, perhaps the sole comfort in prosecutorial discretion is our faith in the integrity of the people which operate the system.

As the former Attorney-General and now Chief Justice Mr. Chan Sek Keong emphasized in his speech during the 10th Singapore Law Review Lecture, delivered in 1996: “It is people who make a system fair and just, and not the reverse.”

A PDF version of the article is available here.

My Opinion: Too Many Lawyers?

The following is an article from the previous iteration of Juris Illuminae, published in September 2009 as Vol. 6, Issue 1. It was authored by Mr. Mubin Shah, the Associate Editor and Events Director of the 29th Editorial Board.

THE LEGAL PROFESSION ACT was amended in 2008,1 giving effect to three important changes: the introduction of the Qualifying Foreign Law Practice scheme, enhancements to the Joint Law Venture structure and the liberation of Singapore law with respect to international commercial arbitration.

The 2008 Amendments were enacted to “provide greater flexibility to respond to changing business needs”. But I like to think that the Ministry of Law had us NUS students in mind while deliberating these amendments. The amendments create additional jobs for local undergraduates, by attracting Foreign Law Practices and increasing Singapore’s attractiveness as a hub for international arbitration. After all, the introduction of a second law school in Singapore inevitably leads to an increase in the number of lawyers competing for the same number of jobs. The first batch of SMU graduates increases the number of local undergraduates joining the legal industry in 2011 by at least 70%. Despite the shortage of lawyers in the legal workforce, Singapore would still need to create more jobs to accommodate all her local undergraduates.

To summarize, the amendments in 2008 encourage job growth in the legal sector. These amendments were made in anticipation of the influx of local graduates in 2011.

In 2009, a year later, the Legal Profession Act was amended again,2 with the foreseeable effect of further enlarging the pool of lawyers in Singapore. The question that begs to be asked is: Are the 2008 and 2009 Amendments antagonistic to their own purposes? Ultimately, can the Amendments in 2008 provide enough jobs for the larger pool of legal practitioners we can expect in the future?

I think we should not be overly concerned.

While it is easier for experienced Singaporean lawyers practicing overseas to return home, realistically, the number of lawyers who qualify under this scheme is, for want of a better word, insignificant. The purpose of making it easier for these lawyers to receive their Practicing Certificates is to attract them back to Singapore. These lawyers are assets to the legal community in Singapore and will bring with them a wealth of knowledge, experience and potentially even a Foreign Law Practice.

The 2009 Amendments also allow overseas graduates with Lower Second Class degrees to practice immediately. I find this change slightly more controversial. Previously, there were 2 mechanisms in place to ensure that Singaporeans who studied abroad were competent to practice law back home. The first mechanism, which is still in place, limits the number of recognised overseas foreign law schools while the second mechanism, which has been scrapped, limited the number of overseas graduates taking the Bar examinations immediately upon their return. In the past, only Upper Second-Class degree holders could take the Bar examination. Now, anyone with a Second-Class degree can do so.

One of the benefits of studying law locally, in all honesty, used to be that everyone who graduated with a Second-Class degree could practice. This is arguably unfair to overseas graduates, but it is nevertheless a strong incentive to study in Singapore (or at least I thought so). In light of this amendment, more students would seriously consider the benefits of studying overseas, in certain colleges or universities, where the entry requirements (this is moot) are not as stringent as that of NUS. The pertinent question now is: will there be a sudden influx of students applying to overseas law schools?

At face value, the 2008 and 2009 Amendments seem to contradict each other. The establishment of Foreign Law Practices and an international arbitration hub in Singapore envisioned by the Government will not take place overnight, though we can look forward to a flourishing legal industry in the near future. But how near is near? Are we going to be caught off-guard by the sudden surge of lawyers in 2011, or will we be prepared in time?

[1] Legal Profession (Amendment) Act 2008 (No. 19 of 2008)

[2] Legal Profession (Amendment) Act 2009 (No. 20 of 2009)

A PDF version of the article is available here.