Reflections on my Pro Bono Experience – Harpreet Singh, SC

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dear all, Mr Harpreet Singh from WongPartnership LLP has kindly agreed for us to feature his inspirational Pro Bono article. Enjoy!

Reflections On My Pro Bono Experience

Harpreet Singh Nehal, SC

2012 marks the 20th year of my admission to the Singapore Bar. I recall that when I was in my final year at law school, I flirted with the idea of joining a very small law firm so I could undertake legal work for the man / woman in the street. I eventually ended up joining Drew & Napier and did complex litigation for the next two decades for clients who on no account can be described as “the man / woman in the street”. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) handling complex commercial disputes. Yet, there was a part of me that yearned to undertake work on a pro bono basis for needy individuals.

I happened to be at the right place at the right time for my first pro bono case in my 3rd year in legal practice: PP v Norzian bin Bintat [1995] 3 SLR(R) 105. Serendipity marked the entire narrative of this case. Norzian was one of the neighbourhood boys I was acquainted with from my early teens. We lived in adjacent HDB flats in Hougang. His family lived in a rented flat. Mine was a lot more fortunate: we “owned” our 3-room flat. I recall many hours spent playing soccer with Norzian and the boys in the void deck, right under the nose of signs put up by HDB that left no doubt that playing soccer in the void deck was “illegal”.

Despite countless brilliant moves, and even more spectacular goals in that void deck, I discovered years later that Norzian did not make it to the national soccer squad. Truth is, neither did I. I suspect Norzian discovered that truth about me, because years later he knocked on my parents’ door, explained that he had got into serious difficulty with the police for having allegedly hurting an old man and said he understood I had become a lawyer. The unspoken premise was that I would be his lawyer. Little did I realise then that this seemingly inconsequential matter would turn out to be a case raising an important Constitutional law issue.

I met Norzian a day or two later and got straight to work on my first pro bono brief. We met at a hawker centre and I proceeded to record his instructions on a yellow memo-pad while sipping teh-tarik which Norzian insisted on paying for. It turned out that there had been a minor tiff between Norzian and an elderly gentleman at his void deck, which resulted in a minor injury being inflicted on the victim. The medical report showed that the only injury comprised a “mild contusion”, which I later discovered meant nothing more than a “small blue black”. The police statement showed that there was some element of provocation from the victim. As Norzian described it, following that minor tiff, he was set upon by the elderly gentlemen’s equally elderly friends who set chase upon Norzian. Norzian eventually was apprehended by some patrons at the nearby coffeeshop, who hearing a commotion, assumed the young man was guilty of some misdemeanour. After a delay of about 1 year, Norzian was subsequently charged for voluntarily causing hurt.

Having reviewed the facts, it seemed to me that there was more than a reasonable basis to argue that the injury was inflicted unintentionally. The relatively insignificant injury, backed up by the contemporaneous medical report, itself pointed to an absence of malicious intent. What is more, it seemed to me that this whole matter arose out of a relatively small misunderstanding and should perhaps be resolved out of court. I wrote to the AGC and proposed a meeting between parties to resolve matters. The proposal was, however, summarily rejected.

The matter eventually came on for trial before a very senior District Judge, who immediately appreciated how relatively minor and insignificant the whole matter was and suggested that Norzian and the victim should attempt to patch things. That proposal immediately met with favour with me. The victim himself, with advice from his family, was happy to resolve matters and put an end to this misunderstanding. An eminently sensible settlement was worked out between Norzian and the victim, which included an apology from Norzian to be given in open Court. A composition offer was accordingly made by Norzian, and accepted by the elderly man. The Prosecution, however, opposed the composition. Over the Prosecution’s objection, the District Judge gave his consent to the composition under s 199 of the Criminal Procedure Code. As part of the composition, Norzian raised his right hand and expressed his very elegant apology in open Court in these  terms: “Apek… Sorry Ah!”. He was made to say it a second time because the District Judge did not hear it the first time. Norzian and the elderly man, thereupon, smiled and shook hands and the offence was compounded. To express his heartfelt appreciation, Norzian bought me lunch from the former canteen at the Ministry of Manpower building opposite the Subordinate Courts, telling me that I could pick any food item from any stall in that canteen and he would pay for it. That very generous offer was gladly accepted and is, to this day, one of the most meaningful and significant client lunches I have had in the past 20 years.

The matter was resolved. At least, that is what I thought.

About a week later, I was served with a notice of appeal from the Prosecution. They indicated they would raise a Constitutional law issue relating to the composition. “Huh?” is what I thought when I read that notice. I could not at the time, for the life of me, conceive how the background facts I have outlined above relating to Norzian’s case raised any Constitutional law issue.

In the subsequent appeal before former Chief Justice Yong Pung How, the Prosecution raised the argument that under Art 85(8) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, only the Attorney General has the power to discontinue or terminate criminal proceedings and as s 199 of the CPC provided that criminal proceedings could be discontinued by composition of the offence by the aggrieved party, that provision was ultra vires the Constitution unless it was construed so that it applied only to cases of private prosecutions. That argument was considered, and rejected, by the High Court. PP v Norzian bin Bintat  turned out to be a landmark decision on Constitutional law. I could not have imagined when the case first started that this seemingly minor pro bono matter involving a young man from Hougang would morph into a case of such significant import. I was glad I was of some help to Norzian at his time of need. It was a very small way of repaying him for the very many ball passes he made to me in the “penalty box” of the void deck which enabled me to score the sum total of three goals in the few years we were privileged to play together. I do not know what has since become of Norzian. I trust he is well. I wish him well.

I have since had the privilege of working on a number of other pro bono matters. One (PP v Barokah) immediately comes to mind.

Barokah, an Indonesian maid, was charged with murdering her elderly employer. The young girl was pregnant at the time of the offence, and faced the prospect of a death sentence. The representations, supported by medical expert reports, helped persuade the Prosecution to reduce the murder charge to culpable homicide not amounting to murder on account of Barokah’s diminished responsibility. She avoided the death penalty, and was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. The entire judicial process spanned more than two years, during which time Barokah delivered a beautiful baby girl in prison. Each prison visit enabled my associate and I to see this child grow up. The start of every visit was taken up interacting with the baby, a process which greatly warmed all our hearts. Underlying each visit was the painful realisation that Barokah would one day have to experience permanent separation from her own child. Equally, there was the realisation that the family of Barokah’s deceased employer had to deal with their own tragic loss and grief.

One incident is permanently etched in my mind from my representation of Barokah. During one of the prison visits, I noticed from the corner of my eye that my associate had stopped taking notes. She seemed busy doing something with her papers, except writing. I wasn’t able to quite figure out what she was doing, and so I continued taking instructions. What happened at the end of that visit is something I will never forget. My associate whipped out an origami crane which she presented to Barokah’s young child; her own little gift to the little girl, made from her legal memo pad. It was a heart-warming moment where one human connected with another.

Some of you reading this may be much younger than me. Some of you may even be part of the latest batch of lawyers to be admitted to the Singapore Bar. I hope you will permit me to share a number of personal thoughts about pro bono work.

First, we are all very privileged to have received legal training and are, on account of our training and background, in a unique position to positively impact the lives of individuals in our society. Pro bono representation of accused persons is a very meaningful way of employing our expertise.

Secondly, do not underestimate your ability to assist accused persons who may otherwise be without representation. It is natural for young lawyers or junior members of the Bar to question if they are properly equipped to represent accused persons in criminal matters. The fact is that: (i) for matters coming under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, the Law Society will be able to emplace junior lawyers to work with more senior and experienced lawyers, thus enabling younger lawyers to build up their confidence and expertise and in due course undertake matters on their own. Indeed, there are even relatively straight forward matters (eg mitigation pleas for accused persons who have no defence) which a young lawyer may handle without much difficulty; (ii) similarly with the capital cases administered under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO), junior lawyers may register as junior assisting counsel and be assigned as such to provide litigation support for the lead and assisting counsel. There is, therefore, scope for junior lawyers, including newly called lawyers, to be involved in pro bono criminal work.

Thirdly, civil litigators should not be deterred from undertaking pro bono criminal matters. Civil litigation experience puts one in a good position to assist in criminal defence matters. The skills honed in civil litigation: analysis of issues, legal research, processing and reviewing case law, statutory interpretation, identifying possible defences, assessing credibility of witnesses, testing factual assertions for internal consistency and consistency against contemporaneous documents etc, are just as applicable to civil as well as criminal litigation. Any unfamiliarity with criminal procedure should not, in my view, be a barrier to getting involved in pro bono criminal work. Experienced criminal litigators are more than happy to give guidance to younger members of the Bar. For more complex criminal law issues, the Senior Counsel Forum is also happy to act as a resource panel to younger members of the Bar.

It is never too late, nor too early, to get involved.

Harpreet Singh Nehal, SC is a partner with Wong Partnership LLP. This year, Harpreet represented, pro bono, a man before the Court of Appeal accused of raping his daughter over a 10 year period. At the trial below, the accused was convicted and sentenced to 29 years imprisonment, with 24 strokes of the cane. On appeal, the Court of Appeal found that the case against him was not proven beyond reasonable doubt and acquitted him of all charges.

The (full) article was published as a supplement to the Singapore Law Gazette (July 2012), the official magazine of the Law Society of Singapore