While most young lawyers’ monthly salaries increase over their first few years practising as an associate, I only saw mine shrinking by at least 10 per cent each year for the last two years. What I gained, however, was something which cannot be measured in monetary terms.
I was one of the five CLAS (Criminal Legal Aid Scheme) Fellows for the year 2015, lawyers working full-time in the Pro Bono Services Office acting exclusively for CLAS applicants who have qualified for legal aid. It was a truly inspiring and memorable experience.
Having been called to the Singapore Bar only in August 2014, joining the CLAS Fellowship with less than one year of Post Qualification Experience initially gave me the jitters. Initially, I was fearful. I felt that for every one thing I did right, I probably made nine other mistakes. However, with the support we CLAS Fellows got from not only the mentors and senior criminal law practitioners, but also from the Bench itself, we became more confident and pulled through the initial teething phase.
As any young lawyer would know, it is only in very rare (and usually only “low risk”) cases that first and second year lawyers get the opportunity to argue a case, be it in chambers or in open Court, with the latter being obviously even less common than the former. However, being a CLAS Fellow really took the requirement of being able to “work independently” to the next level. Each of us had the opportunity to manage and control the flow of our individual cases, conduct interviews, do our own investigations, and ultimately, make oral submissions in open Court. Some of us, myself included, even had the opportunity to have conduct of a trial – yes that means that I not only got to prepare the questions, but actually also conducted the cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses. Opportunities like these are probably far and few between for young lawyers in private practice, but they were what gave me the confidence I now have when it comes to speaking in open Court. I daresay that I speak for the other CLAS Fellows as well.
Being a CLAS Fellow also exposed me to the different types of challenges that many accused persons actually face, especially if the accused person is a vulnerable person (ie young and/or suffering from psychiatric conditions).
I recall a case which I took up concerning a 40-year-old man (“L”), who had allegedly stolen a handphone from a young boy aged around 15. Looking at the charge sheet alone, it looked like a fairly straightforward case of a grown adult preying on a young boy, in a HDB lift no less. Any prosecutor reading the charge would almost surely have a list of “aggravating factors” already prepared to be presented to the Court upon a guilty plea being taken. However, when I first interviewed L, who came down to the CLAS office with his elderly mother, I found out what really happened.
I was told by L’s mother that L suffers from mental retardation. Of course this was initially taken with a (huge) pinch of salt, but my interaction with L later proved what L’s mother said. L was observably slow in answering the questions I posed to him. He would stammer, look around nervously, and his whole body would even tremble and twitch. He would give me very short simple replies in Chinese, usually only after L’s mother repeats my question to him, and he hears the question from his mother.
The first thought that came to my mind was, “how did the Investigation Officers even manage to explain his charge to him, let alone get him to write and sign his long and cautioned statements?”
Further questioning gave me the following information. On the day of the alleged offence (10 July 2014), L was seated at a bench near a playground below his block. His mother told me that he would occasionally sit there to watch the other children play. L told me that he noticed a young boy walking towards him. When the young boy came up to him, the young boy suddenly stomped on L’s foot, began laughing, and walked away. Feeling bullied, L followed the young boy under a few blocks of flats, and eventually entered a lift with him. As the lift was heading upwards, L inched towards the young boy. He asked the young boy in Chinese “why did you step on my foot”. The young boy did not reply. Just as the lift door opened and the both of them stepped out, L grabbed whatever the young boy was holding in his hand, and immediately threw it on the ground. The young boy began shouting, and his mother, who heard his screams, came running out of the house and began screaming at L. In panic, L ran down a few flights of stairs, entered the lift, and headed home. L’s mother told me that apart from noticing a small limp in L’s movements, nothing else was out of the ordinary. That was, until later that evening, when the police came knocking on her door and arrested L, on suspicion of having committed an act of robbery.
L then spent the next four days locked up at the Institute of Mental Health, and a psychiatric report was prepared. I had sight of this report and it states in no uncertain terms that L was “diagnosed with Mild Intellectual Disability”, had a “history of neurological problems such as Miniplymyoclonus (an epileptic condition) and cerebellar atrophy (causing trembling hands while doing something”. Furthermore, it was reported that L had a “full scale IQ of 56”, and that “his social maturity was assessed to be approximately 10 years of age”. L did not answer any of the psychiatrist’s questions pertaining to the alleged offence.
If a psychiatrist, trained to handle such persons, was unable to obtain answers from L, it is curious how, on the other hand, L’s statement to the Investigation Officers were all positive admissions, pleading for leniency.
L’s mother was visibly distraught, and told me that she herself had been seeing a counsellor. She was at some time diagnosed as suffering from “caregiver’s stress syndrome”, and seeing L get arrested in their own home only made things worse. She told me that she felt that it was all her fault for letting L go out to play, when she should have just kept him at home to watch television. Seeing the state that both she and L were in, I did what I could to refer them to the Community Justice Centre, and even accompanied them to a Family Service Centre in their neighbourhood. I had to make sure that L’s mother stayed strong and could hold herself together, and also wanted Social Services to help L find a simple job to properly occupy his time.
Ultimately, a Letter of Representations was sent to the prosecution to explain the events of 10 July 2014, and which also enclosed all the relevant supporting documents evidencing that L, even though intellectually disabled, was now gainfully employed. From a legal perspective, it was clear to me that the mens rea of having intended to take “dishonestly” was not even present in the case to satisfy the charge of theft. This was of course also highlighted to the prosecution.
A discharge amounting to an acquittal followed my Letter of Representations. When L’s mother heard the news, she began crying over the phone. She thanked me non-stop for the effort I had put in to help her son. On the day of the DATA (discharge amounting to acquittal) itself, again L’s mother was in tears as she shook my hand outside the Court. L, on the other hand, looked as confused as the first day I met him – sometimes I still wonder if he understood what actually went on.
To me, when a case like this slips through the cracks in the system and leads to a charge being tendered against a vulnerable person, it is one case too many. This case was one of the many which I handled during my CLAS Fellowship which fuelled my drive to continue representing the less fortunate. Now, even after my one-year contract with the Law Society of Singapore has concluded, I am still handling at least 30 active CLAS files at any one time. This of course, could not have been done without the support of my boss, or without what my experience as a CLAS Fellow had taught me.
I had chosen a path not many young and newly-called lawyers would have chosen – to do the kind of cases that got me interested in the study of law to begin with, instead of climbing up the career ladder which would have promised a steady increase in salary. And this is most likely the path that I am intending to stay on for some time to come.
► Foo Juyuan
CLAS Fellow 2015
A C Fergusson Law Corporation