Wednesday 21 March 2018

Changes to criminal justice system passed in Parliament on 19 Mar 2018

Video-recordings of suspects' statements to start in phases
Use of new procedure in specified rape cases first among slew of changes to criminal justice system
By Selina Lum, Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Mar 2018

The video-recording of statements from suspects will be introduced in phases, starting with the interviews of those accused of specified rape offences, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said yesterday.

The video recording of such interviews is mandatory, she added, disclosing that enough police officers have been trained to implement the first phase.

This new requirement is among more than 50 diverse changes spanning the criminal justice system that were approved by Parliament after debate yesterday. These related to matters ranging from investigations to court processes to sentencing.

Ms Indranee said video-recording the interviews of the rape suspects will allow the courts to take into account their demeanour, and also provide an objective account to help the court decide on allegations that may arise over how the interview was conducted.

But the legislation will allow for flexibility to take into account operational exigencies, she added.

For example, there may be a need to record a handwritten statement immediately at the crime scene where a suspect is arrested.

The Government plans to eventually let video statements of vulnerable victims be used in place of their oral testimony in court.

It will monitor the first phase before deciding how to put it into operation because the video-recording of victims' statements involves complex issues, said Ms Indranee.

During the debate, Members of Parliament expressed support for the video-recording of suspects' statements, saying it makes the interview process more transparent.

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) said the move heeds the "longstanding calls from the legal fraternity".

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said video-recording protects both the interrogator and the person being interrogated. It deters the use of coercive practices by investigators and prevents the accused from making false claims that their statements had not been given voluntarily, he said.

But some aspects of the regime worry MPs such as Mr Ng.

He noted that video-recording would reduce instances of false confessions only if it captures the entire interaction between investigator and suspect.

He asked if there are guidelines to ensure the entire interview is recorded. The footage should focus equally on the suspect and the police officer, and show the whole room, he said.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun said that if threats, inducements and promises were offered to the suspect before the video-recording, that would defeat its purpose.

Ms Indranee said it would not be feasible to record every exchange between a police officer and the accused person from the time of arrest until statement-taking.

She said the rooms for video-recorded interviews are purpose-built to ensure good quality of sound as well as picture.

One camera focuses on the interviewee and another captures an overview of the entire room.

Nominated MP Mahdev Mohan asked why defence counsel are not allowed to have copies of the recordings.

Ms Indranee said that this was to safeguard against recordings being leaked, lost or misplaced. Defence lawyers can view the recording at an approved place as many times as they want. They will also be given a transcript, she added.

The wide-ranging changes to the Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act also include protection measures for victims of sexual and child abuse; the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements in which corporations can be given amnesty from prosecution in exchange for complying with certain conditions; an expansion of the eligibility criteria for community sentences; and strengthening the bail regime.

"These amendments, when set against the background of the changes that we have made over the past decade, are comprehensive and progressive," said Ms Indranee. "They keep pace with the evolving values of society and with international best practices."

Other changes under the Criminal Justice Reform Bill
The Straits Times, 20 Mar 2018


Male police and immigration officers will be empowered to search a woman suspected of committing a terrorist act if they believe in good faith that the act is imminent and the search cannot be made within a reasonable time by a woman officer.

Currently, women can only be searched by female officers.

This will allow searches of women suspected of being terrorists where time is of the essence and any delay could mean loss of lives.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said that between 1985 and 2008, female suicide bombers carried out more than 230 attacks - about a quarter of all such acts. She cited the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Boko Haram in Nigeria.


Investigators will have powers to access, secure and safeguard evidence on computers, regardless of whether the evidence is stored on a computer inside or outside Singapore.

Many people now use Web-based e-mail accounts or Web storage accounts. Technically, such data may reside in computers outside Singapore, even if the data is accessed from within Singapore.

Ms Indranee said the Government is enhancing computer-related powers of investigation to keep pace with the evolving environment in which crimes increasingly involve the use of computers, smartphones and the Internet.


Convicted offenders will be allowed only one application to reopen a concluded criminal case where all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.

The arguments and evidence raised to support such an application will also have to meet certain threshold tests, in a move to balance preventing miscarriages of justice and the need for finality in criminal proceedings.

MPs speak out against unsuitable cross-examination of sex victims
By Selina Lum, Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Mar 2018

Several Members of Parliament made impassioned speeches yesterday about the inappropriate lines of questioning by defence lawyers in sexual assault trials.

Actual cases were cited as they rose in support of changes to the Evidence Act that will require lawyers for the suspects to ask the court for permission, before they can cross-examine the victims on their sexual history which is not related to the charge.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun read out parts of a letter written by a victim of sexual abuse, who was concerned about "unrestrained cross-examination" after reading news reports about a man who had raped his biological mother.

The man's lawyers had argued the woman could have "shut the gates" by crossing her legs, and noted that she had gone about her usual routine instead of calling for help after the rape.

The letter writer said: "I don't know why lawyers, or indeed people, in this day and age continue to believe that sexual assault victims must behave in a certain way... or else they must be lying.

"I don't think I can defend how I behaved after my incident many years ago. I certainly couldn't do it while facing a senior counsel ."

Citing the same case and a few others, Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) said the victims had been unduly subjected to unnecessary lines of questioning and assertions while on the stand.

He noted that the Law Society is working on guidelines of best practices for questioning children and victims of sexual offences.

He said he hoped the guidelines would "instruct defence counsel to refrain from making baseless submissions that disparage the character, integrity or morality of the victim, or premise their case theory on unsubstantiated myths and stereotypes".

But Nominated MP Mahdev Mohan, referring to a Court of Appeal case in which the accused person was acquitted of rape, questioned if the restrictions would create a "chilling" effect on lawyers in putting forward their client's case.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah replied: "We are not saying that the topic cannot be raised. You must show a very good reason why you are asking those questions."

So long as counsel can show that there is a good reason for asking a question, permission will be given by the court in the interest of justice, she said.

Amnesty for firms: Ensuring transparency
By Selina Lum, Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Mar 2018

A new scheme that lets the prosecution grant amnesty to a company worries some MPs.

Their concerns centre on how to ensure transparency for Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) - introduced in the Criminal Justice Reform Bill passed yesterday.

Under a DPA, the prosecution agrees not to prosecute a corporation in exchange for compliance with conditions such as assisting in investigations against individual wrongdoers. All DPAs have to be approved by the High Court.

Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) and Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) asked why the High Court was not required to give reasons in a DPA decision.

Ms Lim also asked why DPA proceedings are held in camera, or behind closed doors.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah replied: "We considered that if DPA approval proceedings were held in the public view and if the DPA did not eventually come into force, the company negotiating the DPA would be prejudiced or could be prejudiced in any future criminal proceedings based on the same facts."

As for why the court is not required to give reasons, she said it could give grounds if it so wishes, but there is no compulsory obligation. This was consistent with the practice of court judgments, she added.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) asked if shareholders are allowed to join DPA proceedings as interested parties. Ms Indranee said this issue can be considered further. However, the basic position should be that a company's decision-making power lies with its board.

The board of directors has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the company, while shareholders do not have a similar duty, she said.

Changes to criminal justice system a step in the right direction
By Elgin Toh, Deputy Political Editor, The Straits Times, 20 Mar 2018

Sweeping revisions to the criminal justice system were passed unanimously in Parliament yesterday, with each stage in the course of justice - investigation, trials and sentencing - seeing notable changes. The amendments came via two pieces of legislation, the Criminal Justice Reform Bill and the Evidence (Amendment) Bill, after lengthy consultations with multiple stakeholders.

MPs on both sides of the aisle commended the changes.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), a lawyer, called it "one of the most exhaustive reviews of the criminal justice system in recent history". Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), also a lawyer, said the changes introduced "important and progressive reforms", and "rightly slaughtered some longstanding and sacred cows".

Of the more than 50 changes approved, the most consequential was, arguably, the move towards video statements by suspects, in place of written ones. This will be compulsory in rape cases, and could be used in other types of cases in future. The move protects suspects and police officers, as it further removes doubt - which can arise at trial - that statements were made under duress.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah, in explaining the changes, said video statements are helpful as the demeanour of a suspect can be taken into account.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun asked if all interactions can be put on video. Ms Indranee said this is not feasible, given the many conversations that take place - from the time an arrest is made to the actual taking of the statement.

Another change affecting alleged perpetrators of an offence or crime is deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs). These allow a firm to enter a deal to pay a fine and implement reform, for instance, in lieu of prosecution.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said this incentivises a new management team that discovers past crimes in a firm to come forward and account for them.

Among the biggest changes affecting victims is the restricting of questions an accused's defence counsel may ask in sexual abuse cases, such as about the sexual history of an alleged victim.

Other moves to encourage victims to testify include the use of screens in court, to prevent eye contact with the accused, and video-recorded statements in lieu of court appearances.

On the whole, the changes are balanced and sensible. What was also striking were the moves to safeguard the rights of suspects, such as with video statements, as well as victims. This strengthens the notion that an accused must be treated fairly and reasonably for justice to be done.

Changes that are pragmatic but that might appear to protect perpetrators - like the DPA - can be tricky, because of how the public can view or misread them. Such changes are possible only when crime is low and the public is not in an indignant or panicky mood about law and order.

A second point of note is the growing use of video technology. On top of the changes noted above, the Bills expand the use of video links to plea-taking and sentencing, to reduce the risk associated with transporting remandees to the courts, for instance.

Videos already play an important role in crime fighting.

CCTV footage has been key to solving thousands of cases in recent years, and was critical in reducing loan-shark cases.

Ms Indranee said the use of video will rise, due to improvements in technology: "Going forward, technology is going to be more and more infused in practice, both civil as well as criminal. That's the direction in which it is moving."

There are many benefits to video technology, but as is often the case, technology has a dark side that must be closely watched. It can be a double-edged sword.

Those familiar with the highly acclaimed but grim British television series, Black Mirror, will understand this well. The series portrays a range of futuristic scenarios - for example, with technology that records on video all that one sees and hears or that calls up images from one's memory on a screen.

In one episode, when a woman who witnessed a road accident is asked by an insurance firm's employee to project her memory onto a screen as evidence, she also recalls scenes of her involvement in a murder - prompting her to kill the employee to cover up her crime. In another, a mother's relationship with her daughter is severed when the latter catches the former surveilling her with a system that captures what the daughter sees.

These are fantastical plots. But even yesterday, MPs warned that video statements could be stolen and put on the Internet. This could prejudice cases, given the emotive nature of videos and how they could shift public opinion.

With these two Bills, criminal justice has taken a step in the right direction. But with the advances, the authorities need to also stay mindful of unintended consequences.

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