SINGAPORE – Whose responsibility is it to put right miscarriages of justice, if ever there are any – the judiciary or the President?
In possibly the most far-reaching ruling on this matter the Supreme Court has made, the three-judge Court of Appeal – comprising Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Justice VK Rajah and Justice Andrew Phang – has said it was “in the interest of justice” for the court to have that power.
It is possible, for example, that a conviction here may one day be confronted with new evidence – or “essentially an error in the judicial process” – and the three judges said it was “reasonable to assume that the court is better placed to evaluate the merit of the new evidence”, rather than rely on the Executive.
Above all, an appellant in a criminal case – even one who is facing the death penalty – is entitled to raise all defences available in law.
The issue of whether the court can review its decisions has arisen in a couple of recent cases, most notably that involving convicted Malaysian drug mule Yong Vui Kong.
And the Court of Appeal’s comments – in a 21-page grounds of decision, which MediaCorp obtained a copy of – come nearly a month after it shot down a claim made by the Attorney General’s (AG) Chambers that the High Court had no authority to put off Yong’s execution.
The 21-year-old, who was sentenced to death in November last year for trafficking 47g of heroin, was to be hanged in December after his clemency plea was rejected by the President.
But days before the sentence was to be carried out, defence lawyer M Ravi successfully sought a stay of execution from the High Court – a decision the AG’s Chambers had opposed.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Jaswant Singh argued that granting a stay of execution would open the floodgates and allow for abuse of the judicial process.
In the judges’ view, according to the document, the “finality principle” should not be applied strictly in criminal cases “where the life or liberty of the accused is at stake as it would subvert the true value of the judicial process” which is to ensure as far as possible that “the guilty are convicted and the innocent are acquitted”.
Similarly, they also believed the floodgates argument “should not be allowed to wash away both the guilty and the innocent”.
“In our view the public interest in having finality in court proceedings could not possibly outweigh the public interesting in determining whether or not the mandatory death sentence was constitutional under the Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Chan.
“The developments referred to by counsel, new or old, may or may not be relevant in the Singapore context, but due process requires us to hear the appeal in the present case.”
Yong had originally filed an appeal against the conviction and sentence but in April last year he instructed his then-lawyers to withdraw it for religious reasons.
At that time, he had embraced Buddhism while in prison and wanted to own up to what he had done.
Yong’s next appeal date will be heard at the High Court sometime in March.
Jacob 69er: See here for my post on Vui Kong