TJC is horrified that Sylesnar Seah, a 19-year old who has been charged with murder and faces the death penalty, has been denied access to counsel, despite his young age and the severity of his potential punishment. To make matters worse, it was reported today that he has been remanded another three weeks for psychiatric assessment.
Last Thursday, Sylesnar’s lawyer, Mr Sunil Sudheesan, had made an application in court to seek access to his client for a duration of one hour, in order to advise him of his rights under the law, including possible defences to his murder charge. Mr Sudheesan’s request was entirely reasonable and follows basic principles of access to justice. However, Mr Sudheesan’s application was denied as the Court agreed with the prosecution that it was “premature” to grant Sylesnar access to counsel.
Under Singapore law, an accused person would be granted access to counsel within a “reasonable time”. This has been held to mean a period of weeks after investigation commences, and has been justified on the basis of non-interference with police investigations. In practice, this means accused persons in Singapore often only ever receive advice after investigations are complete.
This legal position is neither in line with most other jurisdictions, nor follows international human rights standards on the right to legal advice, where the right to access counsel immediately is basic to the very idea of fair trial. The absence of the right to counsel must also be seen in context of Singapore’s generally weak procedural protections for accused persons, such as the power of the Court to draw adverse inferences where accused persons do not disclose material facts during investigations. The cumulative effect of the absence of all these procedural protections, means that an accused person effectively has to have a fully formed legal defence even before they meet their lawyer.
Sylesnar’s circumstances warrants him urgent access to counsel. We agree with Mr Sudheesan that allowing him one hour of access to his client will in no way impede police investigations, and instead, will help to ensure that investigations are carried out fairly.
Instead, Sylesnar will be given “a pamphlet of rights” in lieu of being given access to his counsel. Given Sylesnar’s age, and the circumstances under which he is in remand, giving him a general booklet of information on accused persons’ right is woefully inadequate. Sylesnar should have access to legal advice that is tailored to the murder charge for which he has been arrested. He should also be given the chance to better understand his rights as an accused person, potential defences, the investigative process that he is currently being subjected to, and ask questions to his lawyer to put his mind at ease, as best as possible. All of this can only be achieved by speaking to his lawyer.
As Mr Sudheesan pointed out in court, “the law must protect everybody equally, but protection is only available if persons know what the law is. If laypersons do not know what the law is, they would be disadvantaged when it comes to assisting the police with full investigations.” As a young, vulnerable person facing capital punishment, Sylesnar currently sits with this disadvantage. Allowing Sylesnar immediate access to a lawyer will address the stratospheric imbalance of power that he is currently facing amidst his murder charge, and police investigations.