'Access to counsel' issue already settled

SINGAPORE - Alleged hacker James Raj Arokiasamy has failed in his bid to seek a ruling from Singapore's highest court on whether a person held in remand has the right to a lawyer immediately when he asks for one.

Dismissing his application yesterday, the three-judge Court of Appeal led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the issue had already been decided in a 1994 case.

"This is settled law and we do not see that there is any controversy," said the Chief Justice.

James Raj is accused of hacking into the Ang Mo Kio Town Council's website on Oct 28 last year and signing off as "The Messiah". He is also facing charges of drug consumption.

The 35-year-old filed a High Court application for immediate access to lawyer M. Ravi after he was charged on Nov 12 last year and remanded for two weeks at the Institute of Mental Health.

At the 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.

On Jan 14, Justice Choo Han Teck dismissed the application, saying he was bound by the 1994 case of drug trafficker Jasbir Singh. Then, the Court of Appeal had ruled that a person's right to counsel was within a "reasonable time" after arrest, not immediately, to allow the police to carry out investigations.

By then, the issue of James Raj's access to counsel had become an academic point as a district court had granted him access to Mr Ravi on Dec 3. Still, James Raj pursued his bid to the apex court.

Yesterday, Mr Ravi, together with co-counsel Eugene Thuraisingam, said there was a lack of clarity on the issue of immediate access to counsel on request and asked the court to make a ruling. And, if it is held that immediate access need not be granted, the court should set out what is meant by a "reasonable time".

Deputy Public Prosecutor G. Kannan, however, argued that a time limit cannot be imposed because "reasonable time" varies from case to case. He gave three scenarios: a shoplifter who stole a can of beer, a serial burglar who broke into 20 homes, and a complex financial crime involving 250 victims and $3 million.

He said the time needed for police investigations in each case would vary and so a "reasonable time" cannot be a fixed period.

James Raj is expected to appear in a district court again in two weeks' time.

This article was published on May 8 in The Straits Times.

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