Should You Claim Trial or Plead Guilty to a Criminal Charge?

accused in court trial

If you have been charged with a criminal offence in Singapore, you may be wondering whether you should plead guilty to the charge(s) or claim trial. As an accused person, this is an important decision that you would have to make with potentially lifelong consequences. What are the considerations you need to keep in mind when making this decision?

This article will explain:

Do note that for the purposes of this article, the criminal charges refer to charges for offences that are not punishable by death (i.e. non-death penalty offences). This is because, under Singapore’s criminal laws, you cannot choose to plead guilty to an offence that comes with the death penalty. Instead, the Public Prosecutor will need to show evidence before the court to prove that you have committed the offence and are guilty of it. 

What Does It Mean to Claim Trial in Singapore?

If you claim trial, this means that you: 

  • Are disputing the charge(s) against you for the offence(s) you have allegedly committed; and/or
  • Disagree with the facts surrounding the offence(s) you have allegedly committed, as set out in the Statement of Facts.

The charge would specify the offence(s) you have allegedly committed on the specified date and time – for example, causing grievous hurt by doing an act so rashly or negligently as to endanger human life or the personal safety of others, thereby committing an offence under section 338 of the Penal Code.

Following this example, the facts surrounding this offence may then state that on the specified date and time, you were driving your motor vehicle in a dangerous manner and failed to stop at a designated pedestrian crossing, causing you to knock down a pedestrian – the victim – who fractured their leg as a result.

When you claim trial, you can either appoint a lawyer to defend you, or defend yourself as a litigant-in-person. After you have claimed trial, you will be required to attend a pre-trial conference (PTC). The PTC is intended to deal with the relevant administrative matters before the trial date is scheduled. Once the Public Prosecutor and defence are ready, the judge will fix a date for the trial to commence.

During the trial, both the prosecution and defence would be given the opportunity to present their case and evidence to determine whether you should be convicted of the charge(s).

The prosecution will present their case first by calling their witnesses to give evidence before the court. If the court finds that the prosecution has presented a sufficiently strong case for you to answer the charge(s), the trial will continue, and the defence will be asked to present its case.

When both sides have presented their case, they will each be given the opportunity to make closing submissions on the evidence presented before the court. After hearing the closing submissions, the judge will make a verdict, or decision, on whether you are guilty of the offence based on the facts and evidence presented by the prosecution and defence and announce this decision.

What Does It Mean to Plead Guilty in Singapore?

If you plead guilty, this means you admit that you have committed the offence(s) as set out in the charge(s) that the prosecution has brought against you. Once you plead guilty, the court will convict you of the offence(s) without going to trial and the matter will proceed to sentencing, either immediately or at a later hearing.

Do note that you are not allowed to contest, or dispute, the charge(s) or claim trial after you have been convicted by the courts. In very exceptional circumstances, however, it is possible to retract a guilty plea by raising certain facts that would affect whether you should have been convicted of the offence(s) in the first place. I’ll discuss the retraction of a guilty plea in further detail below. You can also appeal against the sentence that you receive after you have been convicted. 

In addition, do note that you do not need to plead guilty to all the charges if multiple charges have been raised against you. You can plead guilty only to specific charges, and be convicted of those specific charges, and choose to claim trial to the other charges against you.

When Might You Consider Claiming Trial? 

You believe that you are not guilty of committing the offence(s) in question

1) The facts do not satisfy the elements of the offence 

In this case, you may have been charged with an offence for your involvement in a particular incident. However, you believe that your actions or conduct in this incident do not constitute the elements of the offence(s) you have been charged with.

This is important because you can be convicted for an offence only if the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your actions or conduct satisfy every element that makes up an offence. For example, a particular offence may require:

  • Element a) a particular action or conduct; and
  • Element b) an intent to cause a particular outcome, as a result of that action or conduct, in order for that action or conduct to be a criminal offence.

Although you may have been charged because your actions during that incident met element a), you might not have satisfied element b) if there had been no intent on your part to cause the outcome that resulted from your action/conduct.

In such a case, because the factual circumstances might not satisfy all the elements of the offence, you might want to claim trial to dispute the charge(s) against you.

2) Case of mistaken identity/being falsely accused of a crime

If you believe that someone has mistakenly identified you as the offender or made a false allegation against you, you might wish to claim trial to prove your innocence.

Being falsely accused of a crime can happen when, for example, you are charged with an offence based on circumstantial evidence that implicates you. For example, an eyewitness saw you standing next to an injured victim at the crime scene, holding a weapon in your hands.

The eyewitness inferred that you must have injured the victim, thereby mistaking you to be the assailant and hence the person who committed the offence. However, the truth might have been that you had chanced upon the scene of the crime on your way home and stopped to help the injured victim.  

Under these circumstances, you would want to prove your innocence and to do so, you would need to claim trial.

For more information, please see our other article on the steps to take if you’ve been falsely accused of a crime.

You believe that you have a reasonable excuse, or defence, for committing the offence(s)

If you have been charged with committing an offence, you may believe that you had a reasonable excuse, or defence, for your actions.

For example, you have been charged with causing hurt to a Person X. However, you believe that your actions were justified because you believed that Person X was going to hurt you or rob you, and you were exercising your right to private defence (otherwise known as the right to self-defence) against a potential assailant. 

In this case, you might wish to claim trial and raise the right of private defence for your actions. If you are able to successfully establish this defence, you may be found not guilty of the charge(s) against you and hence be acquitted. This is because nothing is an offence if it had been done by an individual in the exercise of the right of private defence.

You believe there is sufficient evidence available to convict you

You may also wish to claim trial if you are unsure as to whether the prosecution has sufficient evidence to convict you of the offence(s) that you have been charged with.

In a criminal trial, the burden of proof, or the onus of proving that you are guilty of committing the offence(s) that you have been charged with, lies with the prosecution. And as briefly mentioned above, the Public Prosecutor needs to prove the case against you “beyond reasonable doubt”. This is a high standard to meet, where the prosecution must prove that, based on the evidence presented at trial, there is no other reasonable explanation for the offence(s) you have been charged with other than that you are guilty of it.

If the judge reviews the evidence during the trial and finds there is insufficient evidence for a conviction, then you may be found innocent and acquitted of the charge(s).

When Might you Consider Pleading Guilty? 

You have committed the offence(s) and are remorseful for your actions 

In the following circumstances set out below, you may wish to consider pleading guilty to the charge(s):

  • You admit to committing the offence(s) in question and agree to the facts as stated in the Statement of Facts; or
  • The evidence against you is strong and it is very likely that you will be found guilty by the court after a trial.

There are also practical benefits to pleading guilty at an early stage. It is generally recognised that a plea of guilt benefits the community because it reduces the duration of and time spent on court proceedings. It also saves on the resources otherwise involved in going to trial, and lightens the court’s workload.

You may therefore receive a less severe sentence for committing the offence if you decide to plead guilty as early as possible. 

What are Other Considerations You Should Keep in Mind When Deciding Whether to Claim Trial or Plead Guilty? 

You cannot afford the legal fees involved if you choose to claim trial

If you choose to claim trial, do bear in mind that this can be a potentially costly affair – both in terms of time and money. Depending on how complex your case is, the legal fees could add up to five or even six-figure sums.

In addition, some criminal trials may drag out for several months and even years, which would also add to your legal fees. The potentially high costs is one factor to bear in mind in making your decision.

However, do note that there are some options available to you if you wish to claim trial but do not have the financial means to pay for the legal fees.

You can approach the Law Society of Singapore’s Pro Bono Services to apply for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). This is a scheme that provides subsidised criminal legal assistance to individuals who are facing criminal charges for non-death penalty offences and are unable to afford a lawyer.

To qualify for legal aid under CLAS, you will need to pass both a Means Test and a Merits Test. For the Means Test, you will need to disclose information about your income, savings, property and other assets. For the Merits Test, a CLAS lawyer will ask questions on your case to assess whether you have reasonable grounds for defending your case and going to trial.

In certain circumstances, your lawyer may also offer to waive or reduce their legal fees as a gesture of goodwill. It is important that you discuss your personal and financial circumstances with a lawyer so that they can work together with you to ensure that you are fairly represented and receive the best defence possible, despite your financial situation.

Even if you claim trial, you can still plead guilty later

Do note that even if you choose to claim trial at first, you are still permitted to plead guilty at any stage of the court proceedings before the judge delivers the decision on your case.

However, do note that it may be more challenging to do the opposite – in other words, where you first plead guilty and subsequently wish to retract your plea of guilt and claim trial instead. This is because at the point where you decide to plead guilty, the court accepts that you, as the accused person, are fully informed of and understand the consequences of the charge(s) and of pleading guilty, and that the guilty plea was made voluntarily (i.e., without any external pressure or coercion).

A guilty plea can be retracted only in very rare and exceptional cases. For example, this could be where the court believes that the accused might have misunderstood the charge to which he/she had initially pleaded guilty, thus making the plea of guilt invalid. The court may also not accept a plea of guilt if it is proved that the accused had not understood the nature and consequences of pleading guilty.

While there are a number of considerations to bear in mind in deciding whether to claim trial or plead guilty to a criminal charge, this is ultimately a decision that you, as the person facing the charge, will have to make. Nevertheless, it is important to ensure that you fully understand the implications of your decision. Some offences are also technical in nature, and you should seek legal advice to better understand these offences and their elements. A criminal lawyer will be able to advise you on whether your actions or conduct satisfy the elements of the offence, and therefore whether you should claim trial or plead guilty to the charge(s) against you.

A criminal lawyer will also be able to assess the facts of your case and help you determine what would be the best option to take to ensure a fair outcome for you. For example, you may have decided to plead guilty at first. After reviewing the facts, however, a lawyer may advise that you actually have a viable defence available to the charge(s), which could go towards reducing the sentence that you might face, or even result in your acquittal.

If you are facing a criminal charge in Singapore and need further advice or an assessment of your case, please contact me. I have over 14 years’ experience as a lawyer overseeing a broad range of practice areas, including criminal practice. In a criminal matter when life and liberty are at stake, I am committed to fighting for my clients’ best interests with empathy and patience, and ensuring they receive a fair and just outcome for their matter.

For more information, you can view my profile and contact me here