Friday, 8 March 2013

Prosecutors told not to be swayed by public opinion

Attorney-General urges them to act in the interests of fairness and justice
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 7 Mar 2013

THE Attorney-General yesterday urged prosecutors not to be swayed by public opinion, despite social changes that have led to their decisions being criticised and challenged.

Mr Steven Chong said their job had become more complex and difficult due to intense scrutiny in the digital age and people's greater willingness to question, criticise and even challenge their decisions. But he added that prosecutorial discretion - for example, over whether or not to charge someone - "cannot and must not be dictated by the vagaries of public opinion".

Mr Chong took over the reins at the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) last June, just as an online furore erupted over the Woffles Wu case.

The prominent plastic surgeon was fined $1,000 for asking an employee to take the rap for two speeding offences. But some suggested he got off lightly because of his wealth. Others questioned why he was charged with furnishing false information, rather than the more serious crime of obstructing the course of justice - even though the section of the Penal Code allowing this had not yet been enacted at the time of the offence.

Defending the AGC's decision, Mr Chong said that "much of the furore stemmed from a lack of understanding of criminal procedure and criminal law".

He added that it was important to clear up such misconceptions and uphold the public's confidence in the justice system.

More recently, Internet users questioned whether former anti-narcotics chief Ng Boon Gay should have been charged with corruption, following his acquittal at the Subordinate Courts. But the trial judge who cleared him - and called star witness Cecilia Sue a liar - agreed during the hearing that it was right to charge Mr Ng as there was enough prima facie evidence against him.

Mr Chong, who made no mention of the Ng Boon Gay trial, said: "As prosecutors who have to stand firm upon the shifting sands of public opinion, and make fair and just decisions in an increasingly challenging environment, the going can often seem tough."

However, he added that they must always act in the interests of fairness and justice. The choices they make have far-reaching effects upon the people being prosecuted, their families, the justice system and the courts.

For example, prosecutors may make decisions in the early stages of criminal proceedings that could later determine the success or failure of an appeal.

They also play an important role in court - making sure that all relevant facts and laws are presented before a judge.

"The role of a prosecutor excludes any notion of winning or losing a case," said Mr Chong. "His role is not simply one of crime control, but to seek and achieve justice."

The job is carried out by 240 public prosecutors from the AGC, and about 200 lay equivalents from 27 ministries and statutory boards with their own prosecuting units.

Yesterday, Mr Chong also announced a new attachment programme designed to encourage greater consistency among the various groups.

It will involve lay prosecutors - who have limited formal legal training - learning from their counterparts at the AGC. The programme, which will start in the third quarter of the year, will teach them about their mentors' work processes and give them a chance to attend court hearings.

No comments:

Post a Comment