Developing a People-Centered Justice in Singapore: In Support of Pro Bono and Innocence Work

Cincinnati Law Review as collection of IP papers, 2013 Forthcoming

36 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2013 Last revised: 9 May 2013

See all articles by W.L. Cheah

W.L. Cheah

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 2011


The past few years have witnessed a subtle but important reconfiguration of Singapore’s criminal justice landscape. At various official levels there has been the promotion and development of an approach that recognizes and protects different individuals impacted by the criminal process, such as the accused person and victims, while the acts of criminal justice agencies have been subjected to greater judicial scrutiny. In the past, foreign and local commentators have often criticized the Singapore authorities’ predominantly utilitarian approach to criminal justice, on the basis that this prioritized governmental objectives of crime control and efficiency over the accused person’s interests. Local criminal law don, Michael Hor, has previously observed how such utilitarian objectives have resulted in individual rights being passed over for the sake of “administrative efficiency”, as evidenced by the enactment of broad “drift-net” criminal laws and the giving of broad discretionary powers to investigative and prosecutorial agencies. Another prominent local academic, Thio Li-ann, has formerly criticized the Singapore judiciary’s deference to governmental decisions and its unwillingness to rigorously scrutinize such decisions despite their impact on fundamental individual liberties.

Contemporary developments in Singapore reflect a distinct change in approach towards crime and the criminal law. First, there has been an attempt to identify and recognize the rights and interests of different non-state actors impacted by the criminal justice process, such as the accused person and victims. There have been endeavors to ensure their fair treatment by considering their specific concerns and individual circumstances. Second, there has been increased judicial scrutiny of prosecutorial and investigation practices. While the government may use criminal justice to secure important objectives, democratic and constitutional ideals require its implementation - especially given its far-reaching implications on individual liberties – to be subject to oversight and exacting standards.

This article maps and critically evaluates these developments by historically situating them within the Singaporean context. It highlights how, in light of these changes, legal representatives will play an ever more important role in securing justice for accused persons. As Singapore courts exercise increased discretion and scrutiny over cases, it becomes ever more important that accused persons have access to skilled and committed legal representatives who bring all relevant facts and legal arguments to the attention of the court concerned. Access to such legal representation will ensure that an accused person’s circumstances are fully considered by the court, and the possibility of mistakes – such as wrongful convictions – avoided. There is, therefore, a need to ensure that all accused persons have access to competent legal representation and assistance regardless of the nature of their crimes and their socio-economic background. This applies not only at the pre-trial, trial, or appeal stages, but also at the post-appeal stage. Previously undiscovered facts or mistakes may only emerge with time, long after the case has exhausted all avenues of appeal.

Currently, in Singapore, the need for legal representation for accused persons in criminal cases is met by private lawyers on a paid or pro bono basis. Accused persons who cannot afford legal representation have access to a number of pro bono initiatives. The front-end demand for criminal legal aid - during the pre-trial, trial, and appeal stages – is primarily met through pro bono programs run by the Law Society of Singapore [hereinafter the Law Society] and the Association for Criminal Lawyers of Singapore [hereinafter the ACLS]. In a separate initiative that focuses on the back-end of the criminal process, law students from the National University of Singapore [hereinafter NUS] have established a student-run Innocence Project [hereinafter NUS IP]. This article evaluates these on-the-ground justice initiatives, and explains why they should be supported. These initiatives – which foster a culture of service in the legal community and goes towards building a professional identity based on such a commitment to service – should be encouraged.

Keywords: Wrongful Convictions, Singapore, Innocence Project, Pro Bono

Suggested Citation

Cheah, W.L., Developing a People-Centered Justice in Singapore: In Support of Pro Bono and Innocence Work (2011). Cincinnati Law Review as collection of IP papers, 2013 Forthcoming , Available at SSRN:

W.L. Cheah (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law ( email )

469G Bukit Timah Road
Eu Tong Sen Building
Singapore, 259776

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