Litigator R. Thrumurgan ’98 talks to NUS law students about the challenges and rewards of criminal advocacy. Victor Katheyas ’13 diligently takes notes.
R. Thrumurgan ’98, or Thiru as he is usually called, is clearly passionate about the practice of criminal law. And it certainly shows from the moment he begins speaking at the inaugural Law Alumni Career Pathways Lunchtime Talk on 26 August 2011.
“It’s a privilege to be a lawyer,” he says. “You are the filter for accused persons – in some cases between life and death. In other words, basically the last hope for them.”
That he takes this privilege very seriously is beyond doubt. Thiru was, of course, most recently in the news for his role in representing Ismil bin Kadar in the case of Muhammad bin Kadar and another v Public Prosecutor  SGCA 32. Brothers Muhammad and Ismil bin Kadar had been convicted in 2005 of murdering an elderly housewife while trying to rob her, and were both sentenced to the mandatory death penalty. Ismil spent six years in prison and two years on death row before his conviction was overturned in early July 2011, thanks in no small part to Thiru’s tireless and meticulous work as his defence counsel.
In its judgement, the Court of Appeal took the unusual step of directly commending Thiru for his conduct of Ismil’s defence. Justice of Appeal V K Rajah ’82 declared:
“We would like to acknowledge Mr Thrumurgan for his impassioned advocacy and the commendable conscientiousness with which he has conducted Ismil’s defence. He deserves credit for placing on the record of proceedings many of the facts we have referred to.”
(To read the judgment in full, click here)
“I don’t think there was a moment when I wanted to quit,” says Thiru, who took on the case pro bono. “You must remember that this person only has his lawyer to depend on.”
Even though it was financially difficult for him at times, Thiru persevered for the sake of his client. He considers the foregoing of innumerable billable hours in working on Ismil’s defence a worthwhile sacrifice on his part, for the sake of his client. "In my view, our profession is special. The public expects us, more than they expect any other profession, to do pro bono work.
"Over the years, many lawyers have done and continue to do pro bono work. I can’t think of another profession that does as much pro bono work as we do - both on an individual level and at an institutional level with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences, Legal Aid, etcetera. Although pro bono work is often not glamorous, the fact that so many of us do take on such cases is something that we can all be proud of."
Thiru attributes his passion and abilities to his late mentor R. Palakrishnan SC, who was arguably one of Singapore’s finest criminal litigators. Palakrishnan, whom Thiru refers to with affectionate respect as “Pala”, took Thiru under his wing and showed him the ropes of criminal litigation.
He fondly recalls how Pala encouraged his young associate’s professional development. “He would allow me, then a very junior lawyer, to conduct cross-examination of the witnesses while he took notes,” he says. “I owe him everything.”
Thiru also credits Pala with teaching him that a good lawyer needs much more than just familiarity with the law to be successful – he has to have a positive attitude, be passionate about his work, and very often be courageous in the face of adversity.
Thiru has not spent the entirety of his career in the trenches of criminal practice. After a few years in practice, Thiru went to work for Tyco International Ltd, a US conglomerate with a total turnover exceeding US$3 billion, as its Legal Counsel. A few years later, he was headhunted for the position of Group Legal Counsel of Oiltools International Inc, an oil and gas MNC headquartered in Singapore.
However, his passion for litigation could not be extinguished, and he eventually returned to legal practice, forming his own law firm, Thiru & Co.
Thiru laments that few law students these days share the same passion for criminal law. Fewer still opt to join – and remain in – the criminal bar. He offers a few arguments to persuade law students and young lawyers of the benefits to practising criminal law:
First, even though criminal practice is not as lucrative as corporate work, “you can definitely make a good living out of it if you work hard,” he says. “If you’re good, you’ll be more than okay.”
Second, criminal work provides good training for young lawyers. This is because it is extremely fact-specific and forces lawyers to think carefully about using available facts in order to mount a viable defence. This invaluable skill can be applied in many other areas of legal practice. “Even in a corporate transaction, you must consider how all the facts will play out in order to further your client’s interests,” he reasons.
Third, Thiru believes that his experience as a criminal lawyer gives him an advantage when he tries civil cases. Even taking into consideration the fact that the procedure for civil litigation is different, the nature of the trial is largely the same for both civil and criminal matters. Also, more criminal than civil cases actually go to trial, so criminal work offers young lawyers many more opportunities to accumulate advocacy experience.
If the enthusiastic response of the students attending the talk was anything to go by, it would appear that Thiru is very ably continuing the legacy of his mentor, inspiring young lawyers to go into criminal practice. One cannot help but think that Pala would be proud.