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Singapore: Public defenders needed

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Singapore: Public defenders needed
A 17-year-old boy is headed to court next month on fresh charges of "wounding religious feelings". Although he has a right to a lawyer, he hasn't found one. Should Singapore allow a teenager to go to trial unrepresented?

In a sequel to a show that no one asked for, teen blogger Amos Yee is set to return to court. He had famously been sentenced to four weeks' imprisonment (backdated to include his remand period) last year after being convicted of wounding religious feelings and distributing obscene material. Now, he is facing six charges of wounding religious feelings (again), and two charges of failing to show up to police interviews.

Amos’ trial dates have been set for 17, 18, 23, and 24 August. He has a pre-trial hearing on 21 July to confirm these dates, and to find out who the sitting judge will be. According to his mother, Amos has asked for a non-religious judge.

There are many problems with the choice to press criminal charges against a kid with a blog. There are many problems with keeping the bar as low as “wounding feelings” when it comes to dealing with speech. But as Amos prepares to go back to court, a new cause for concern has emerged: that of legal representation for minors.

According to Amos’ mother, he does not have a lawyer, and will therefore be representing himself in court. Let’s think about this for a second: a 17-year-old is going to have to defend himself during a four-day trial because he has not been able to secure legal representation.

He does have the right to appoint a legal counsel, but has not yet been able to find one. It could be for a variety of reasons: as is clear by now, Amos is not the easiest person to work with, and his previous run-in with the law was a bit of a political hot potato. It's unlikely that his parents would pass a means test that would qualify him for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme as administered by the Law Society. And so he will have to go to trial alone.

Amos is being charged as an adult, but he’s still just 17 years old. As far as the United Nations is concerned, anyone under the age of 18 is deemed a child under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). And while Singapore’s Children and Young Persons Act specifies that a child, in the Singaporean legal context, is anyone under the age of 14, the government’s response to recommendations in the recent Universal Periodic Review has suggested that perhaps this classification might be reviewed to bring things more in line with the CRC.

Access to legal counsel should be a cornerstone of due process for any justice system. Children and minors, in particular, need more safeguards and protections to ensure that their rights aren’t neglected in times of investigations and court proceedings. Having a lawyer present during interrogations, and to provide legal advice throughout the investigations and subsequent trial, should be a basic requirement for anyone below the age of 18. If no lawyer can be found (for whatever reason), or if the family cannot afford to hire a lawyer, there should be public defenders available to step in.

(Note: Public defenders should also be available to anyone above the age of 18, unless that person specifically opts to represent himself/herself.)

Under our current system, the state only offers legal representation to those who facing capital charges, and are unable to afford their own. Everyone else is subject to means testing if they want to access the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme as provided by the Law Society. When it comes to minors, the parents are expected to pass the means test.

But legal representation shouldn’t be about means testing, especially when it comes to children facing criminal charges. It also shouldn’t be dependent on whether the defendant or the defendant’s case is attractive to lawyers. 

One might say that Amos is annoying, insensitive, difficult. But justice means that even the most annoying, least popular person gets the best defence that can be mustered for him or her. Even the most difficult child shouldn't be allowed to go to court unrepresented. Public defenders are important to provide representation when people are in need, no matter who they are.

#justice, #law, #due process, #singapore