Imagine that you’ve found yourself in a sticky situation: you’ve been arrested for a crime. Shoplifting, arson—maybe even vandalism. As you’re sitting in the interrogation room, one thought flashes across your mind: you need to get a lawyer.
But it’s possible that you might also have considered a very radical alternative—DIY justice.
Maybe you’ve just started the process of gathering information about self representation. Or, maybe you have already made your first Criminal Mentions Court appearance and are now reconsidering your decision to not get a lawyer.
What if you decide not to get a lawyer? What if you want to go the do-it-yourself route and take a crack at your own defence the way you would a broken water pipe, without calling a plumber? Is that an option you can take?
These are the questions we’ll be answering in this article.
Am I allowed to represent myself in court?
In Singapore’s courts, an accused person in a criminal case can choose to be represented by a lawyer or to conduct the case themselves. This means that technically, you are allowed to represent yourself in a criminal case in court, even in one with serious consequences like the death penalty. Of course, whether you would want to conduct your own defence in such a serious matter is another question altogether.
For example, Tan Chor Jin (better known as the One-eyed Dragon), was known to have conducted his own defence in 2006 in a murder trial. He was the first man in more than 16 years to conduct his own defence when facing the death penalty in Singapore. However, the High Court ultimately rejected Tan’s multi-pronged defence and found him guilty. In his appeal, Tan decided to seek proper legal representation and was represented by the renowned criminal defence lawyer, Subhas Anandan.
What steps should I take if I want to represent myself in court?
Still determined to represent yourself in court?
Here are the steps you’ll need to take:
Step 1: Remember to attend the Criminal Mentions Court hearing.
After your initial arrest and remand, you can expect to be brought forward at a Criminal Mentions Court. You will be asked to attend the Court when the prosecution is ready to formally file charges against you (no longer than 48 hours after your arrest and remand). If you were arrested but released on police bail, you will similarly be asked to attend Court once the prosecution is ready to formally file charges against you.
If you are charged in your personal capacity (i.e. for a crime that you yourself are accused of committing), remember to bring along your identification document which bears your photo and your personal particulars (e.g. NRIC or driver’s licence). If you are appearing on behalf of an accused company (or any other corporate entity), bring along your identification document as well as a valid letter of authorisation from the accused company or corporate entity.
Court attendance is compulsory. If you fail to attend Court, a Warrant of Arrest may be issued against you. If you fail to attend Court while you are on bail, your bailor will have to explain to the Court why the bail amount should not be forfeited.
Step 2: Decide whether you intend to plead guilty or claim trial.
At the Criminal Mentions Court, the charge against you and the prescribed punishment will first be read out and explained to you in a language of your choice. It is crucial that you understand what the charge against you is about, and the range of punishment that can be imposed on you. If you do not understand, do not hesitate to ask for further clarification.
After the charges have been read to you, the judge may direct that the plea be taken. This means that you have the choice of either pleading guilty (you admit that you committed the crime and accept your punishment) or claiming trial (you deny that you committed the crime and want to prove that you did not do it).
If you intend to claim trial, move on to Step 3.
If you intend to plead guilty, skip ahead to Step 6.
Step 3: Attend the Pre-Trial Conference
If you are claiming trial, the Mentions Court will fix the case for a Pre-Trial Conference that will be attended by yourself and by the prosecution (represented either by a police prosecutor or a deputy public prosecutor). The Pre-Trial Conference is a chance for you to find out what the prosecution’s case and evidence against you is so that you can prepare your defence accordingly. Witnesses will also be made known then.
To make the most of your Pre-Trial Conference, you should address the following matters:
- Ask if the prosecution plans to make use of any written statement that you may have given to the police. If so, you may request for a copy of the statement.
- Indicate to the court the number of witnesses that you wish to call at the trial.
- If you or any of your witnesses cannot speak English, you should inform the Judge that you will need an interpreter to be at the trial.
Step 4: Prepare for the trial
- Make sure that all your witnesses turn up for trial. If you are worried that your witnesses will not turn up for your trial, you can apply at the Crime Registry (State Courts, Level 1) for a “Summons to a Witness” to be issued against that witness, for a fee of $20 per Summons issued. If you do this, a court process server will deliver the document to the witnesses.
- On trial day, confirm that you have brought the evidence that you need to court. If the evidence includes documents, make sure you have at least four copies of each document: one (the original) for the Court, one for the prosecution, one for the witness and one for yourself. Also make sure that the author of the document is in Court. If not, the document may not be admitted as trial evidence.
- Dress appropriately for your trial. Avoid shabby or indecent attire.
- Observe court decorum. Arrive early to find your way to the right court on time. When the judge enters the courtroom, stand up and bow to show respect for the judge. Address the judge as “Your Honour”, the prosecutor as “the learned prosecutor” and the witness by their surname, e.g. Mr Tan or Miss Kamala.
Step 5: Attend the trial
Examination in chief of the witness: The prosecution will present their case against you first by calling their witnesses to give evidence. When the prosecution’s witness is on the stand, the prosecution will be given the first opportunity to ask the witness questions. While this is happening, you should listen carefully to the questions and answers, and make notes for your own reference.
Cross-examination of the witness: After the prosecutor is done with their questions, you will be allowed to ask the witness your own questions. This is your chance to challenge the evidence given by the witness. You can do so by giving your version of the events, and asking the witness if he or she agrees with it. You may also rely on other evidence to contradict the evidence given by the witness. However, you are not allowed to ask questions that are intended to insult or embarrass the witness.
Re-examination of the witness: After your cross-examination, the prosecutor is allowed to ask further questions of the witness in order to clarify some of the answers given during cross-examination. This is known as the “re-examination” of the witness.
Calling of the defence and presenting the defence case: After the prosecution has called all their witnesses, the Court will decide if the prosecution’s case is strong enough for you to answer the charge. The Court will ask you to present your defence. You will be given two options:
- Option 1: Take the stand. You will give evidence from the witness stand on oath. You will also have to answer questions from the prosecutor.
- Option 2: Remain silent. You can choose not to take the stand and remain silent. However, if you keep silent, the Court may draw all reasonable inferences, including those that may be against you.
Regardless of which option you chose, you are still entitled to call on other witnesses in support of your defence.
Closing of submissions: At the end of the trial, you will be allowed to make a closing submission. This is your chance to highlight the weaknesses of the prosecution’s evidence and give reasons why your evidence is more credible and should be accepted by the Court. After you have finished, the prosecutor will also have a chance to reply to what you have submitted.
Verdict: The verdict of whether you are guilty or not is decided by the Court and may either be pronounced immediately or adjourned till later (if the Court needs more time to consider its decision). The judge will read you your sentence.
If you are satisfied with the outcome, congratulations! Your journey ends here.
If you are dissatisfied with the outcome, proceed to Step 7. Do not argue with the judge or protest in the courtroom as that may amount to contempt of court.
Step 6: Proceed to the PG Courts
If you already intend to plead guilty, then this is like a “fast forward” of the full court process. Here, the judge will sentence and convict you after hearing your mitigations. Mitigations are the reasons why you think a lenient sentence should be imposed on you. Examples of mitigating factors may include: your age, the circumstances of the crime, whether you have the potential for rehabilitation, and your degree of cooperation with the police.
A benefit of taking this route is that the Court may consider your early plea of guilt as a mitigating factor, and hence, apply a “discount” on the sentence imposed.
Step 7: File an appeal
If you are unsatisfied with the verdict or sentence or both, you may file an appeal with the Central Registry within 14 calendar days from the announcement of the sentence to reverse the judge’s decision. For instance if your case was previously decided by the State Court, you might appeal to the Supreme Court (higher court). However, this is not a guarantee that you will get the outcome that you want.
Also take note that If you plead guilty to an offence, you may only appeal against your sentence. If you are convicted after a trial, you may appeal against conviction or sentence or both.
And that’s it! Here’s an infographic that sums up the entire process:
Why might you still want to engage a lawyer anyway?
If you’re still with us, you may have noted how long and tedious the entire process summarised above was. Additionally, the above summary omitted mention of other documents and deadlines that you might have to submit and keep track of at each of the different stages on top of the mental stress of being accused in a criminal case. Are you prepared to do that? Having a lawyer who is familiar with legal procedure and deadlines and the substantive law could help to reduce some of that stress.
Additionally, you should take note that the Court will not relax its procedural rules and standards for you just because you are representing yourself as a layman. If you are representing yourself in Court, you must be prepared to present your case as if you are a legally represented litigant. You must also be prepared to bear the full responsibility of preparing for and conducting your own case. While the Judge may offer some guidance regarding the procedures of the trial, the Judge cannot advise you on what you should do to successfully represent yourself because the role of the Judge is to ensure that you have a fair trial and not to act as your lawyer.
Furthermore, a good lawyer will be able to do more for your case than simply instruct you on the procedural rules of the Court. A good lawyer will be able to come up with a strategy for your defence and offer you other valuable points of guidance that you might not be aware of as a legal layperson.
If your main reason for not engaging a lawyer is that you can’t afford one, check if you qualify for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). The CLAS is a scheme provided by the Law Society Pro Bono Services. If you qualify for CLAS, a volunteer lawyer will be appointed to represent you, provided you meet the following criteria:
- You satisfy a means test, which includes an income test and a disposable assets test.
- You intend to plead guilty or claim trial for offences involving these statutes:
(i) Arms & Explosives Act
(ii) Arms Offences Act
(iii) Computer Misuse Act
(iv) Corrosive and Explosive Substances & Offensive Weapons Act
(v) Dangerous Fireworks Act
(vi) Enlistment Act
(vii) Explosive Substances Act
(viii) Films Act
(ix) Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act
(x) Misuse of Drugs Act
(xi) Moneylender’s Act (Cap 188) [Ss 14 and 28]
(xii) Penal Code
(xiii) Prevention of Corruption Act
(xiv) Ss 65(8) and 140(1)(i) of the Women’s Charter
(xv) Undesirable Publications Act
(xvi) Vandalism Act
Finally, if you are in need of some quick legal advice or want a second opinion before you make any decisions on conducting your case in person, consider using Quick Consult to get 15 minutes of help from a practicing lawyer on Asia Law Network over the phone for a flat fee of $49.
All the information in this article was sourced from https://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/services/self-help-services/self-help-guides/self-representation-basics and ‘Guidebook For Accused In Person: A Guide to Representing Yourself In Court’ (2nd edition), Criminal Justice Division.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.