When Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong urged criminal defence lawyers to do more to promote ethical practices, he wasn't inferring that Singapore lawyers are a crooked bunch- although there were high profile cases of legal professionals who absconded with clients' monies. He was advocating that lawyers do not encourage clients to launch appeals that have no chance of succeeding. Don't waste money, you can't beat the system, seems to be the message, "In doing so, you are simply taking their hard-earned, and perhaps borrowed, money unconscionably." Interestingly, the appeal fee has just been hiked ten-fold from $5 to $50, something to do with "cost recovery" in the context of criminal prosecution.
The number of appeals to the High Court was 248 in 2009, up from 227 the year before. A large number of these appeals ended up with a stiffer sentence or higher fine. A man jailed a month for assaulting a taxi driver had his prison time jacked to three months, when he appealed for the original sentence to be reduced to a fine. So why do they persist? The CJ has once said that the law should not only be upheld, but must be seen to be upheld too. Perhaps the players in the courts, the judges and the advocates on both sides, have yet to instill confidence in the justice system. Maybe we can blame it on Alan Shadrake's book, or the way his accusations are contested. To borrow the comment of lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, "The only currency a lawyer has is his integrity."
Another lawyer suggested that the CJ's remarks aim to strike a balance between ensuring the offender's right to appeal and preventing the system from being overloaded with too many appeals. Which begs another question - was the initiative weighted to address the court's bureaucratic inefficiencies or cost considerations for the client? After all, the struggle to save a man's life from the gallows surely cannot be measured in monetary terms.
CJ Chan recognises the pioneering element involved, "I have not heard of any other jurisdiction where the Bench, the Prosecution and the Criminal Bar have voluntary agreed to discuss issues and problems of criminal justice that arise from time to time in the course of their work." Judging from Singapore's unique tripartite system, where the worker sometimes gets shortchanged, one can appreciate why some have already expressed reservations about the outcome.