A PROSECUTOR AND DEFENCE COUNSEL TALK VOIR DIRE
In November 2019, SAL lunched with Mr Francis Ng SC, a Deputy Chief Prosecutor at the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and Mr Shashi Nathan, who heads the criminal practice group at Withers KhattarWong. During our discussion, the veterans spoke of the need for the Defence Bar and prosecutors to know one another better. “When you have established mutual respect and rapport built up over years of knowing the other party, there is a great deal of trust between the prosecution and the defence. This allows matters to be discussed candidly and even resolved through a phone call,” said Mr Ng at the time.
Our lunch was more than a month before the first reported cases of COVID-19, which has only widened the gap between the two sides. With court cases increasingly going online, physical interactions have all but become impossible. “I do feel like it’s a bit more distant and even more adversarial in some instances,” observes Ms Tania Chin, a partner at Withers KhattarWong’s criminal practice. Mr John Lu, a director at the AGC, agrees, adding, “I remember when pre-trial conferences were held in-person. There was some value in having everybody patiently waiting in one space and a lot of things could be quickly resolved there. You’d pull the other side and say, ‘Let’s talk quickly’ and when we go into the courtroom, both sides are in some sort of agreement on the way forward.”
The duo first met several years ago, when Ms Chin was assisting Mr Nathan with a High Court case on which Mr Lu had also been working. “You see each other over and over for two weeks straight and during that time, you either grow to like them, as we do each other, or really hate them,” says Mr Lu with a laugh.
Beyond forging valuable bonds, these face-to-face interactions also provide crucial learning opportunities, shares Ms Chin. “There’s a Bar Room in the State Courts where the Defence Bar gathers and chats about our cases. Sometimes a junior would approach us and share a case they’re working on. They’ll tell us what the judge has said and what the prosecution has done, and they ask us for advice, which everybody readily shares.” She adds that it’s not just the younger ones who benefit from these informal tête-à-têtes. More senior practitioners also use these sessions to better gauge sentencing benchmarks for their cases.
But as both Ms Chin and Mr Lu explain, hankering for a pre-COVID world is far from productive (shortly after our discussion, the Government further tightened social restrictions in Singapore, showing just how fluid the current situation is). Instead, they say that the profession has to make do and adapt to the current situation, which is precisely what they’ll be doing on 1 June at a virtual session that combines social interaction with learning.
The duo is part of an esteemed group leading a workshop that delves into the oft-misapplied concept of voir dire. Besides Ms Chin and Mr Lu, the group also comprises Mr Nathan, Ms Diana Ngiam (Quahe Woo & Palmer), Mr Tham LiJing (Duxton Hill Chambers) and Mr Ramesh Tiwary (Ramesh Tiwary).
Also known as an ancillary hearing, voir dire is a means of determining if an accused person has given a statement under inducement, threat or promise. Commenting on the need to bring the concept to life, Mr Lu says, “Many of us know it as a concept and how it appears on statute. But how do you actually conduct one? That’s something less clear.”
To illustrate this, facilitators will break participants into smaller groups, where they’ll have a chance to apply the principle to a hypothetical situation. Facilitators will then provide valuable feedback, explains Ms Chin. “It being a virtual session won’t impede this feedback process, which is really crucial to drive home our explanation of voir dire. It’s something that will benefit everybody, from the more senior practitioner to the junior who has just been called.”
Registrations for Voir Dire: Hurdling Threats, Inducements and Promises are now open. The session will be held on 1 June.