Singapore: A Need to Reconsider the Accused Person’s Constitutional Right to Counsel

The Singapore High Court recently considered the right of an accused to counsel in the case of James Raj s/o Aroliasamy v PP [2014] SGHC 10 (available here). Article 9 (3) of the Singapore Constitution recognises the right of an arrested person to consult counsel, but does not expressly state the point of time at which the person can do so. Singapore Courts have consistently held that an accused does not have an immediate right to consult counsel. Rather the right to counsel is to be exercised within “reasonable time”. Case law has interpreted such “reasonable time” to include the time needed for police investigations, which would otherwise be hampered by permitting the accused access to counsel.

What is interesting about the High Court’s judgement in James Raj s/o Aroliasamy v PP is that the Judge voiced some doubt about how previous case law had narrowly interpreted the right to counsel. The Judge nevertheless stated that he was bound to follow precedent. Even so, the Judge affirmed that the Prosecution bore the burden of showing why permitting access to counsel would jeopardise investigations in a particular case. It was not enough for the Prosecution to point to, inter alia, the complex or cross-border nature of the case. Rather, the Prosecution had to specifically explain why permitting access to counsel would jeopardise investigations in that case.

The High Court’s judgement reflects the increased willingness of Singapore Courts to closely supervise the work of the Prosecution and other criminal justice agencies. However, it is perhaps time for the Court of Appeal to reconsider its interpretation of the constitutional right to counsel in light of the High Court’s assessment of previous case law in James Raj s/o Aroliasamy v PP.

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