16 Jul 2007 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
Mr Hri Kumar Nair asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law in relation to the recent incident where a prisoner was given three strokes of the cane in addition to that provided in his sentence (a) how did the error occur; and (b) what steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the same or similar errors.
Ms Sylvia Lim asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Law what is the approach of the Government in taking responsibility for mistakes in the administration of justice, such as clerical or administrative errors which result in unnecessary or excessive punishment.
Prof S Jayakumar: Mr Speaker, Sir, with your permission, can I take Question Nos. 3 and 4 together as they are related?
Mr Speaker: Yes.
Prof Jayakumar: Thank you. I will first answer Ms Sylvia Lim’s question which is a general question, ie, what is the Government’s approach in taking responsibility for clerical and administrative mistakes made in the administration of justice that result in unnecessary or excessive punishment?
Sir, in answer to that question, let me say that it is clear that there can only be one approach to that situation. When such a mistake has indeed occurred, the Government must, of course, accept responsibility. Each and every mistake must be taken seriously - we cause an investigation, identify the causes and take remedial actions to ensure that it does not recur. Indeed, this has been the approach which we have taken. And where compensation is due, the Government will be prepared to offer reasonable compensation. In short, we take responsibility, and put it right.
Let me now turn to Mr Hri Kumar’s question. His specific question is about the case involving Mr Dickson Tan, which has been the subject of some media publicity. The first part of his question is how did the error occur?
Sir, Mr Dickson Tan was charged with four counts of abetting an unlicensed moneylender to harass a debtor. He pleaded guilty to two of the charges, was convicted and sentenced on 28th February 2007 to three months’ imprisonment and two strokes caning (for one charge) and six months’ imprisonment and three strokes caning (for the second charge), that is, a total of nine months’ imprisonment and five strokes of the cane, as the sentences are to run consecutively. (The two remaining charges were taken into consideration). There is no dispute that the sentence was legally correct. It was pronounced in open court and recorded accurately in the case file and notes.
The error occurred at the stage when transcribing the sentence from the case file onto the Warrant of Commitment. The Warrant of Commitment notifies the Prisons Department the sentence that was passed on the offender. When preparing the Warrant, the Court Clerk erroneously entered the sentence for the second charge as six months’ imprisonment and six strokes of caning instead of three strokes, thereby giving rise to eight strokes of the cane, instead of a total of five strokes. Unfortunately, the sentencing District Judge also did not spot the error when he signed off on the Warrant.
The caning sentence was administered to Mr Dickson Tan on 29th March. The Court Clerk who prepared the Warrant became aware of the error on 2nd April following an enquiry from a member of Mr Tan’s family. The Court Clerk then alerted the District Judge, who in turn reported the matter to the Senior District Judge.
The second part of Mr Hri Kumar’s question asks what steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the same or similar errors.
Before answering that, let me add that when the matter was brought to the attention of the Senior District Judge, he took the matter seriously and immediately directed investigations to be carried out.
Those investigations revealed how the error had arisen which I have explained. In the course of the investigations, statements were obtained from the Court Clerk as well as the District Judge.
The Court Clerk, in his statement, admitted his mistake and apologised. The Court Clerk expressed his remorse over the incident and asked to resign on 12th April. The Subordinate Courts considered instituting disciplinary proceedings against the Court Clerk but after considering his overall performance record in the Court, which was good, and that this was his first mistake which was not wilful, allowed him to resign.
Mr Speaker, Sir, I understand from the Courts that the primary responsibility for preparing a Warrant of Commitment lies with the Court Clerk. Unfortunately, the District Judge who signed off on the Warrant did not detect the error. The Chief Justice has directed that the District Judge be formally cautioned and that after he has cleared his outstanding criminal cases, he would be taken off judicial work which involves the signing of Warrants of Commitment.
Mr Speaker, Sir, let me inform the House that the Chief Justice has himself looked into this matter. He has written to the Senior District Judge to express “deep concern” about what happened in this case and to impress upon the Subordinate Courts’ Judges and Court Officers the seriousness with which he views avoidable mistakes of this nature. Moreover, notwithstanding that this kind of mistake was a rare occurrence, the Chief Justice has said that he takes this seriously as it may affect the excellent reputation and standing of our legal and judicial systems which have taken many years to build up. The Chief Justice has directed a review of all administrative procedures within the Courts so as to put in place a system to avoid mistakes of this nature in the future.
The Chief Justice has also directed that the Courts work with the relevant agencies - Prisons, Police and the Attorney-General’s Chambers to ensure that a comprehensive system of checks by all agencies is put in place to prevent mistakes of this nature. All these are now being done.
I understand that the Subordinate Courts have already taken additional steps and refined their checklists. For example, Warrants of Commitment will now be checked twice at both levels by another Court Clerk not involved in the preparation of the Warrant and by a second District Judge.
The Courts are also considering automating the process of preparation of Warrants of Commitment with built-in system checks so that such errors do not recur.
Mr Speaker, Sir, let me end by putting his matter in perspective. The Subordinate Courts deal with some 200,000 criminal cases every year, some involving sentences of imprisonment, some involving fines, some involving caning, and some involving a combination of these sentences. So, bearing in mind 200,000 cases a year, this kind of clerical mistake is an extremely rare occurrence. But as I have said publicly, even if these mistakes are rare, even if there is only one case, it is one case too many. We have to put it right and ensure that it does not recur. I think that is the way to uphold and strengthen the hard won reputation of our legal system for integrity and justice which we have built up over many years. I know that this is also the attitude of the Chief Justice, the Senior District Judge and other members of the Judiciary. Measures have been put in place to strengthen the system and to ensure that this sort of mistake does not recur.
Ms Sylvia Lim: Mr Speaker, Sir, I wonder if the Deputy Prime Minister could clarify some paragraphs in the statement issued by the joint Ministries of Home Affairs and Law on 30th June, released to the media. In that statement, there were certain paragraphs saying that the prisoner was asked at various points in the procedure whether the sentence was correct and he did not protest.
I would like the Minister to tell the House whether it is actually the position of the Government that the prisoner also owes a duty to check the correctness of the Government’s actions and, in that sense, he is not free from blame in this incident.
Prof Jayakumar: Let me explain, Sir, that the position of the Government is not that the prisoner had any contributory negligence. If she read the statement clearly, it was upfront that the error was the error of the official of the court.
Now, why did we put in those points in the press statement? The reason is because that press statement was in response to press queries on that day concerning allegations by members of the family that prior to the carrying out of the sentence, either the prisoner, Mr Dickson Tan, or members of his family, had actually objected to the imposition of the sentence. And the reason why the press statement had to set out the sequence of events is to show that, from the viewpoint of the Prisons, this was not true. In fact, we had to explain that the Prisons has a sequence of steps. From the moment the prisoner is admitted up to the carrying out of the sentence - in fact, I have gone through with the officials the sequence of steps - there are many stages where the prisoner is interviewed. He is asked to confirm that he does not wish to appeal, the sentence is read out to him, he is asked to affirm whether he understands and so on. In fact, I have seen some of the documents where in fact his confirmation is there, that he understood, that he did not object. So, it was in response to allegations that he had objected, and that is the reason why we had to bring out those paragraphs in the statement.
Mr Hri Kumar Nair: Sir, two supplementary questions. The Minister spoke of the Subordinate Courts reviewing its processes. I was wondering whether he could enlighten us on when that process is likely to be completed. The second question is whether the Minister could update us on the status of the settlement talks with the family.
Prof Jayakumar: Sir, I believe the Subordinate Courts have acted very promptly and some of the measures I have already mentioned in my answer to his question. They have already been instituted. Some checks will have to be done in consultation with other agencies, which are involved in investigations, in prosecution, and I know that the Senior District Judge has, in fact, met with the key agencies. I think I can confidently tell the House that these measures will be done expeditiously.
As to the settlement talks or the progress of the mediation, there was a mediation hearing last week and I understand that it has been adjourned to enable both sides to consider and reflect on the positions taken by each side. I also understand that the nature of these mediation proceedings are that they are confidential. And if they succeed and a settlement is reached, that is one scenario. If they do not succeed, there is a possibility that they might go to the courts. So, either way, I think it is best that I do not go into details of what actually is offered and what was said by each side in the negotiations.
Ms Sylvia Lim: Sir, there has been an allegation by the prisoner’s family that after the caning took place, he attempted to write a letter to his family informing them of the mistake that had taken place. The allegation is that the Prison authorities stopped the letter from going out to the family. I would like to ask the Minister whether this allegation has been investigated and the facts have been found about this allegation.
Prof Jayakumar: Sir, I have inquired from the authorities - the Ministry of Home Affairs - and it is very clear that there is no truth in this allegation. No letters were prevented from reaching the recipient intended by Mr Dickson Tan.
Mr Speaker: Ms Lim, last question from you.
Ms Sylvia Lim: Sir, I wonder whether the Minister could further clarify on this issue of compensation. In his earlier statement, he mentioned that the authorities first became aware of the mistake on 2nd April when the family telephoned the court to inquire about the case. I would like the Minister to tell us when was the first offer of compensation made. And was that urgency brought about because of a threat of a law suit against the Government?
Prof Jayakumar: Sir, I do not have the details on that aspect of the chronology. But I do know, from my discussions with the Attorney-General’s Chambers, that as soon as the Attorney-General’s Chambers became aware of the error, an official from the Attorney-General’s Chambers did meet up with Mr Dickson Tan and his family to (a) apologise for the error, and (b) to offer settlement terms. As far as I know, it was well before any threat of legal proceedings was in the air.
CLARIFICATION BY THE DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AND MINISTER FOR LAW
Prof S Jayakumar: Sir, I would like to make a clarification. During the Parliamentary sitting yesterday, after my main answer to Question Nos. 3 and 4, I responded to a supplementary question from Ms Sylvia Lim when she asked about the timing of the compensation offer to Mr Dickson Tan and whether the urgency was brought about by a threat of lawsuit against the Government. When I answered her, I said I did not have the detailed choronology on that aspect. Yesterday evening, I checked with officials from the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The facts are that a letter was received by the Prisons from Mr Dickson Tan’s mother on 30th May asking for compensation and an apology, and containing a threat of legal proceedings.
However, I am informed that well before the receipt of the letter, in mid-April, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Subordinate Courts had already been in discussion on what could be a fair settlement sum after the Attorney-General had ascertained that an error was made. At the end of April, the Attorney-General’s Chambers liaised with the Prisons and Subordinate Courts to meet up with Mr Dickson Tan to discuss a settlement offer. As he would be released on Home Detention Scheme on 17th May, the Attorney-General’s Chambers felt that it would be better to meet him after he was placed on Home Detention Scheme. Prisons then sought to arrange a meeting for the parties to meet. The Attorney-General’s Chambers confirmed the date of the meeting to be on 5th June and the meeting took place then. This confirmation, Sir, was given before the Attorney-General’s Chambers received the letter from Mr Dickson Tan’s mother.
Last updated on 25 Nov 2012