A few years ago, a young man was caught spraying expletives outside a HDB block. He was sentenced to probation, but the Prosecution found it too lenient a sentence.
It was James’ first Magistrate’s appeal case. In the half a year during which this appeal took place, James – the young man’s representative – found the latter to have turned over a new leaf. “Before, he had quite a lackadaisical attitude. But he started taking an interest in his own life, and even checked himself into a halfway house although he was not a drug user.” (Halfway houses are places with regimented routines that typically benefit drug users.) That appeal, while unsuccessful, was the turning point for the young man, who received counsel and support in his time in the halfway house. This is what James enjoys about his job as a criminal lawyer – to see clients not only obtain the best legal outcome, but also make practical changes to leave the life of crime.
Under the training and guidance of his mentor Ravinderpal Singh, James developed the skills and passion for criminal defence work. Today, James has been given the opportunity to lead a team of lawyers in Kalco Law. James also regularly works on white-collar financial scandals, cheating, criminal breach of trust and corruption cases, although that aspect of practice is not regularly featured on the news.
He is usually occupied with criminal work, but handles Commercial and Civil disputes from time to time as well. His approach to law is “engineer-like”, which James likens to be a systematic break down of legal issues, objectives, risks, and potential roadblocks. James was contemplating between practising overseas and in Singapore, when he found his calling in criminal law. It led him to choose the latter option. “I am particularly interested in the rehabilitation process for offenders. What that process entails is the entire journey an offender walks through – from being arrested, investigated, going through the court process and eventually being sentenced. And I believe it should be a holistic one. Every step presents an opportunity for the offender to make a change in his life.
If a young offender is charged with an offence, there are often multiple aspects contributing to his conduct, and these should not be compartmentalised and viewed separately.” Legal aspects are often intertwined with social and family or relational factors. “Therefore, we should deal with multiple aspects concurrently instead of independently. For example, counselling can take place as early as the investigation stages, and this allows the offender to gain insight on his conduct and its effects. I think holistic support systems are necessary for effective rehabilitation. Then the offender can benefit from this rehabilitation process and emerge stronger, wiser, and better equipped to face future challenges” James says.
This also reduces the likelihood of reoffence. “It solves many problems at one go!”
It is clear that this is more than just an ordinary nine-to-five for James. In his own time, he serves as a Director at Breakthrough Missions Ltd, a halfway house that facilitates the rehabilitation process of drug addicts and helps them reintegrate into society. He also serves on the Board at Tung Ling Student Care Centre. Apart from these being truly meaningful activities, James finds that it keeps him relatable, and not overly focused on his work at Kalco Law. “It helps me communicate effectively with younger people. In a way, it compels me to keep in touch with trends, TikTok and all that.”
In addition to having good communication skills, James outlines several other qualities he thinks a criminal lawyer should possess. “Identifying the correct legal issues or potential evidentiary issues is an acumen that a good criminal lawyer should have. It allows the criminal lawyer to ask the right questions to get the right answers.” James then gives an example of this. “When someone says they weren’t there when it happened, the next logical step would be to prove an alibi and ascertain where that person was, and whether he or she has any way to prove it. Accurately identifying facts, issues and legal principles is something that is important.” A good criminal lawyer should always challenge assumptions and exercise discretion, questioning even the instructions his clients give.
Another important quality is empathy. “It allows you to understand your client when they are communicating their situation.” Understandably, in James’ line of work, this trait is not an easy one to master.
“That said, as much as it is a strength to be empathetic, there is a real risk of being emotionally bogged down by the case, which can impede your role as a lawyer.” So, a delicate balance of empathy and professional distance seems to be the magic. Tip the scale to one side and risk being exhausted emotionally and mentally, but tip it to the other – you get an unfeeling automaton.
James shares a particularly memorable case that ties in with the point on empathy. James recounts, “There was a young father who was charged for voluntarily causing hurt to his child (child abuse). When I first read the charges, I was angry. I went into the meeting already angry and pre-judging the situation.” But when James’ heard the young father’s side of the story, he teared up.
As it turns out, the young father had four children living under the same roof as his mother who was a drug abuser. He also had a younger sister who was severely depressed and suicidal, and a younger brother who had epileptic fits. Nine of them, including his wife as well, shared a one-room HDB flat. It turns out that his son had eaten some milk powder from the tin, and the young father’s offence was committed as a form of punishment.
“He told me that this was a similar punishment inflicted on him by his father when he was young, so he was doing it the way he knew how,” James said. James fought hard for the young father’s case and a lighter sentence was granted by the Judge in the end. Undoubtedly, this left an indelible mark on James to avoid judging situations before knowing the full facts of a case. This continues to influence his work at Kalco Law.
The example above was an apt representation of a common myth that people have of criminal lawyers, especially defence lawyers that usually represent offenders. “A lot of people think that we bend over backwards to push a client’s case. But that is simply not true. Our primary duty is to the court, and I cannot tell a blatant lie to the courts, right?”
Ultimately, the role of a defence lawyer is not to turn black into white. It is to present a client’s case as robustly and as faithfully as he can. “I always tell my clients – if you can’t convince me, I can’t convince the Judge. Just as Lady Justice has her balancing scales, both sides of a case should be considered. My role is to advocate for the client’s side as best as I can.”
Similar to James’ belief in a holistic criminal rehabilitative process, he thinks that it is important to live holistically as well. “Work is but one aspect of life. One piece of advice I have for younger lawyers is to be deliberate about how you spend your time. Develop healthy relationships, and remember to spend good time with your family and loved ones as well.”
Link to James’ profile: http://www.kalco.com.sg/our-team/
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.