An "appropriate balance" must be struck when police decide when a suspect can communicate with his lawyer, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
It made the clarification in judgment grounds released yesterday that ruled on an application by alleged "Messiah" hacker James Raj Arokiasamy on whether a person remanded for investigation has the right to a lawyer immediately after asking for one.
James Raj had also sought to know what would be a "reasonable time" within which access to a lawyer is allowed, if there is no immediate right.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, who made up the court with Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang, said the issue was dealt with "squarely" by an apex court 20 years ago, in explaining why the application by James Raj was dismissed.
"We are satisfied that the decision in that case is not only settled law but also good law," the CJ wrote.
"There are adequate safeguards in place to enable the court to ensure that in any given case, the balance is in fact appropriately struck between the interests of the arrested person... and the public interest in effective police investigations."
James Raj, 35, was arrested on Nov 5 last year and charged a week later with hacking into Ang Mo Kio town council's website using the moniker "The Messiah", as well as four drug-related offences.
He applied to the High Court for immediate access to his lawyer M. Ravi.
However, the State Courts remanded him for two weeks at the Institute of Mental Health and ordered that he have no contact with third parties in that time.
At a High Court hearing on Nov 15, Mr Ravi argued that a person remanded for investigations has an immediate right to counsel when he asks for it. The judge also allowed Mr Ravi to speak to James Raj for a few minutes after the hearing.
In January, Justice Choo Han Teck dismissed this application and held that he was bound by the 1994 case of drug trafficker Jasbir Singh, in which it was held that a person's right to counsel was within a "reasonable time" after arrest - not immediately - to allow police to investigate.
By January, the issue of James Raj's access to counsel was academic, as a district court had granted him access to Mr Ravi on Dec 3.
Nonetheless, he pursued his bid to the apex court for clarification on the issue of immediate access and what constitutes a reasonable time before access is granted.
Lawyer Choo Zheng Xi said the decision grounds are significant.
"The Court of Appeal decision leaves Justice Choo's decision intact, insofar as it states that the burden is on the police to show that giving effect to the right to counsel would impede investigations or the administration of justice."
He added: "The nett effect of this is that the police must still give sufficient reasons if they wish to deny an accused person's right to counsel."
The issue has been the subject of ongoing attention.
In January, National University of Singapore don Ho Hock Lai argued in the Singapore Academy of Law Journal that there is yet to be a convincing explanation as to how allowing a detained suspect to consult a lawyer would hinder a police probe.
He noted that calls for change have been made in and out of Parliament over the years, pointing out that Law Minister K. Shanmugam had said in a discussion last year that the position is "not static".
This article was first published on May 31, 2014.
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