NUS Law Students assist in pro bono case resulting in successful acquittal - from left to right: David Koh ’14, Gerald Leong ’14, Tao Tao ’14
Law students David Koh ’14, Gerald Leong ’14, Tao Tao ’14 had the opportunity to contribute towards an acquittal in the Court of Appeal in April 2012. Angela Teng ’15 speaks to the students to get their perspectives on the memorable experience.
On 18 April 2012, the Singapore Court of Appeal acquitted a 37-year-old man of three counts of rape of his daughter, as well as one count of outrage of modesty and one count of having her perform oral sex on him. The Court of Appeal found that the prosecution had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and the man's appeal was allowed.
In the run-up to the appeal, Law School alumni Harpreet Singh Nehal SC ’91, Lim Shack Keong ’91 and Lau Kah Hee ’08, who were representing the appellant pro bono, were approached by Criminal Law professor Alan Tan ’93 who offered the assistance of David, Tao Tao and Gerald in the preparation of the appeal.
Says Gerald, "Our main contribution came in the form of doing legal research on particular questions of law that the lawyers may have regarding the case. This could be in the form of trawling Lawnet or the library for relevant materials. We would then draft a short memo that summarised our research and contained our opinion of how to best approach the issue. This freed up time for the lawyers, who would not have to do the leg-work themselves."
"The lawyers also asked us to analyse the defence's arguments and rank them according to their strengths," adds David.
As this case confronted the boys with novel questions of evidence, they had a lot of learning to do. Says Tao Tao, "I think our First Year criminal law module gave us a solid foundation in understanding the basic concepts in a criminal trial, like mens rea, burden of proof, etc. However, none of the substantive modules we've learned so far were directly on point because the issues on appeal were mostly based on evidence and criminal procedure. The research skills we learnt in LAWR (Legal Analysis, Writing and Research) were probably more useful."
Gerald agrees: "The bulk of the research that we were tasked to do was completely foreign to us, and the challenge was to try and get as much information as possible to understand what the lawyers wanted from our research."
With the tight deadlines that the boys were sometimes given, they had to prioritise and make educated guesses as to where and how to begin researching an area of law which was totally new to them. According to Tao Tao, the learning curve was quite steep.
Deadlines, however, were not the biggest issue by far. David admits: "One issue for me was the controversial nature of the case. I must admit that initially I was somewhat reluctant to work on the case given the allegations that were made."
However David remembered something that former dean, Professor Tan Cheng Han SC ’87 had once said - that every person deserves to have their case heard in court. Listening to Harpreet’s exposition of the facts and treatment of the evidence, he learned to reconsider some of his initial assumptions.
With the successful outcome of their appeal, the boys are glad that their contribution made a difference. As Gerald puts it, "The quality of counsel and thoroughness in sieving through the evidence makes a significant difference in a case like this one; where there was no direct physical evidence."
Another important lesson learned from this experience is aptly summed up by David -
"It is extremely important never to pre-judge a case without assessing all the evidence relating to the case. I also learnt just how hard any lawyer must work in going through all the evidence, even the smallest details, and preparing arguments. By watching Mr Singh in court, I also learned how to be a better officer of the court. It was a great privilege just to watch Mr Singh's demeanour and approach in court."
The boys were glad to have had the opportunity to be part of the team and work on a "real" case. They feel humbled by the consideration paid to them by the lawyers; and inspired by the effort put in despite the fact that they were doing the work pro bono. Says David, "We benefitted much more from our involvement in this case than they did!"
The experience was not a purely intellectual exercise either. Gerald recalls that when the verdict was announced, the mother of their client was so overwhelmed that she broke down in tears. Says Gerald, "We made a difference to the lives of a man and his family. What was even greater was knowing that they had access to justice, regardless of their ability to pay." Tao Tao adds: “Justice must be made accessible to everyone, and we all have a role to play.”