Court of Appeal rules on right of access to documents

SINGAPORE - A person accused of a crime has a right to gain access to documents he owned before they were seized by the police, Singapore's highest court has ruled.

This right exists before the conclusion of police investigations, after the person is arrested and after the person is charged, the Court of Appeal held yesterday in a 60-page written judgment.

The decision of the three-judge court affirmed the ruling of the High Court last year in granting three directors of landbanking firm Profitable Plots access to documents seized by the Commercial Affairs Department from the company premises.

Timothy Nicholas Goldring, 58; John Andrew Nordmann, 54; and Nordmann's wife Geraldine Anthony Thomas, 44, are charged with cheating 86 clients by getting them to put more than $8 million into an alleged sham investment scheme.

They were the first accused persons to ask the court for access of seized documents to prepare their defence.

The issue was whether the criminal case disclosure regime, introduced in the 2010 Criminal Procedure Code, had affected their right of access.

Under the regime, the prosecution gives the defence a list of the exhibits it intends to use at trial. The defence files its case, and the prosecution then provides copies of the exhibits to the defence.

Last October, Justice V. K. Rajah granted their application and held that an individual has the right of access to documents that belonged to him. He concluded that the new regime did not affect this. The prosecution then brought the case to the Court of Appeal, in what is known as a criminal reference, to determine questions of law. It argued that such a right of access never existed in the first place.

But the appeal court said that the recognition of the right to access one's own documents was consistent with an accused's right to due process and a fair trial - provided limits are set to ensure that this right is not abused.

The court held that the right of access was compatible with, and not removed by, the new disclosure regime.

The trio have since gained access to the documents and their trial is in progress.

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