Saturday, January 30, 2016

Military Justice Project @ NUS

The Straits Times reports on a worthwhile development at the National University of Singapore: creation of a Military Justice Project to augment official defending officer (DO) training for non-lawyers in SAF courts-martial. Excerpt:
Soldiers can also choose to hire lawyers outside the SAF. Among these legal professionals, there is debate over whether the training for DOs is sufficient. 
Veteran criminal lawyer Amolat Singh, who conducted the DO course pro bono for three years until it was revised, felt that the training adequately equipped DOs for the duties they typically perform. 
He pointed out that most military court cases are not complex and servicemen often plead guilty. 
"You can run a one-day or a five-day course; at the end of the day, the quality of the DOs comes from practice," said Mr Singh, who was an army officer for 15 years. 
"It's just like how there are many lawyers who after law school don't do any litigation. After a while, these lawyers can also lose touch." 
Criminal lawyer Anand Nalachandran pointed out that the system at least ensures every soldier will get some form of representation. 
"In the civilian court, if an accused person is unable to afford or engage counsel, he may apply for legal assistance - but if pro bono aid is not granted, he may be unrepresented," said Mr Nalachandran. 
But lawyer Laurence Goh Eng Yau, who has more than two decades of experience with military cases, said there was a perceived "imbalance" in the system because DOs tend to be junior officers with no legal background.
"The DO, being a non-lawyer, will be at a disadvantage because he will be arguing against a prosecutor who is legally trained and has access to materials for research and support," said Mr Goh. 
That said, both Mr Goh and Mr Singh pointed out that in their experience, military prosecutors are conscious of the DOs' inexperience and do not exploit their advantage. 
"It's not a game of who performs better," said Mr Singh. "It's really about whatever punishment the serviceman gets at the end of the day - that it's just, fair and according to the law." 
But Mr Goh also said that the current system, while robust, has room for improvement. 
He is part of a group of volunteer lawyers - including Mr Singh - who regularly help DOs vet their mitigation pleas and legal documents. 
They are also working with the MJP, which has approached the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office to see if it can extend its pro bono services to the military courts. 
The Sunday Times understands that the matter is still under discussion. 
Mr Goh said: "We are trying to work towards a situation whereby, perhaps in the long term, volunteer lawyers from the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme can extend their help to court-martial cases."

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