– week of 6th Feb –
This week in court, we got a glimpse into the plight of domestic workers who are entangled with the legal system when a group of them appeared at their hearing, confused and unrepresented by any lawyers. Many migrant workers are unaware of their rights, such as their right to seek help from their embassy of their country of origin, or of any schemes to help them, such as CLAS (legal aid). Often, they feel that those they encounter in the legal system – interpreters, lawyers, judges, administrators – are not sympathetic to how intimidating the experience can be for them, and tend to be impatient with them, adding to their alienation and distress.
Four domestic workers from Indonesia and Myanmar who were held in remand at Changi Prison appeared via Zoom, appearing confused and unsure about what to do. They were not represented by lawyers. It was unclear whether they are aware that they have a right to meet their embassy representatives, and that they can apply for legal representation under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
Most migrant workers are unaware of support services and rely on the goodwill of prison officers to inform them about community resources. Prison officers typically do not help them navigate the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining legal aid. This is made worse by the fact that the officers do not speak the languages of the countries that some of these migrants are from.
Even if they successfully apply for legal aid, the time it takes to process their eligibility and obtain a lawyer could be longer than the eventual sentence meted out. Those who wish to claim trial may be discouraged by officers informing them that the process could take several months and even years. For example, Parti Liyani waited 4 years without any income while she fought a battle in court to prove her innocence. She was eventually acquitted.
Faced with such obstacles, many decide to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, or if the charges they face are wrong or disproportionate to their offences. Most migrant workers do not have family members residing in Singapore who can bail them out. They are also not allowed to make overseas calls.
Mentions hearings are often brief, and transactional, with very little opportunity for those who are accused to seek clarification, information and advice. Often, migrant workers say that they feel those in the courtroom, such as judges, translators and public prosecutors (the state’s lawyers) tend to be impatient with them, further heightening their distress.