February 6, 2024
SINGAPORE – Accused of scratching auxiliary police officers, he was so desperate that he cycled five hours from his one-room flat in Jurong to the State Courts in Havelock Square to see his lawyer.
Unable to afford a bus or MRT ride, he left home at 10am on his bicycle for the 3pm meeting with Mr Pramnath Vijayakumar.
The man, who was in his late 40s, had just been handed four charges, including one under the Protection from Harassment Act for using abusive language towards auxiliary police officers while in lock-up.
Feeling lost, he applied for legal help under Pro Bono SG’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas) in 2019.
This was before the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) was launched in 2022. The PDO was set up for low-income Singaporeans and permanent residents accused of non-capital offences to get access to government-funded defence counsel.
Speaking to The Straits Times on Jan 29, Mr Pramnath said this was one of the first criminal cases he took up under Clas.
He said: “When I realised at our first meeting he had travelled five hours to see me, I told him I would meet him at his flat for future discussions. If not, I would call him. But he told me he did not own a mobile phone.”
The man’s home line had been cut as he could not pay his phone bills.
Mr Pramnath, who is also assistant director of representation at Pro Bono SG, added: “What also stood out to me was that during the seven times I met him, he was wearing the exact same outfit – a red T-shirt neatly tucked into a long pair of grey pants with a brown belt and sandals.”
He did not disclose the man’s identity but said the alleged offences occurred after he had been arrested following a dispute in his flat with his estranged brother.
Mr Pramnath said: “My client was disputing the fact that he had scratched the officers intentionally. He said he needed my help as he couldn’t afford to go to jail because he was the only one taking care of his bedridden father.”
Mr Pramnath said the man was depressed and stressed from caring for his father. The lawyer highlighted the man’s plight and personal circumstances to the prosecution and discussed the charges with them during a confidential meeting.
He said: “It was not a case where I was painting a sad story to convince the prosecution to drop the charges. He needed medical help, and I didn’t believe he should be jailed.”
Several weeks later, the prosecution dropped the charges and issued a conditional warning to the man. One of the conditions was that he had to seek treatment at the Institute of Mental Health.
Mr Pramnath said the prosecution’s decision meant the man could focus on caring for his father during his last years. The father died more than a year ago.
Asked why he felt so compelled to help the man, the lawyer said: “Sometimes, we take things for granted, like owning a mobile phone and being able to take the bus. But such cases remind me there are people who do not have these luxuries and need legal help. So, I wanted to support him the best I could.”
In a separate case in 2020, Mr Pramnath and his Pro Bono SG colleague, Ms Sadhana Rai, defended a client who had 13 sexual assault charges against him for allegedly abusing his stepson.
The lawyer said: “The gut reaction may be to be put off by the nature of the offences, but this man maintained his innocence from the get-go.”
After a 13-day trial over nine months, the man was acquitted.
Mr Pramnath recalled: “When the judge announced his decision, my client did not quite understand it until I told him he was a free man. When it hit him, he held my hands through a gap in the glass panel in the courtroom and thanked me for believing him. Then he cried.”
Mr Pramnath said this strengthens his belief that just because someone does not have the means to afford representation, it does not mean the person should be treated any less fairly in the criminal justice system.
He said: “It’s important that those who are underprivileged get to have a voice, especially when they need it most.”