What is Acquittal & How Can One Be Acquitted in Singapore?

Last updated on April 9, 2021

officer writing notes with suspect in handcuffs

What is Acquittal?

An acquittal is a judgment that an accused person receives when a court finds him or her not guilty of the crime they had been charged with. As a result, the prosecution will not continue to prosecute the person for the offence. In Singapore, this judgment is known as a Discharge Amounting to an Acquittal (DATA).

In September 2020, domestic helper Parti Liyani was acquitted of charges of stealing from her former employer, Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, and issued a DATA.

As opposed to the DATA, there is another type of discharge known as a Discharge Not Amounting to an Acquittal (DNATA). When an accused person is issued a DNATA in respect of an offence, the prosecution will not prosecute him or her for that offence for the time being. However, the accused person has not been acquitted, and can still be prosecuted for the offence he or she was charged with in the future.

For example, the prosecution might apply for a DNATA when it currently has insufficient evidence or witnesses. Then, if new evidence becomes available after the DNATA has been issued, the prosecution might continue prosecuting the accused for his or her offence.

This article will explain:

What Other Orders have Similar Effects as an Acquittal?

No further action

When the authorities declare they will take no further action on a matter, they will not continue investigations nor proceedings against the individual(s) involved. This might happen when the police cannot sufficiently prove the elements of an offence before a charge is brought against a person.

In September 2020 for example, police reports were made against blogger and media personality “Xiaxue” for allegedly intending to wound religious or racial feelings. However, upon consultation with the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), the police decided to take no further action in relation to the posts because the elements of the offence were not established beyond a reasonable doubt.

Stern warning

A stern warning is a warning issued to persons being investigated for offences to discourage them from committing an offence in the future. When a person receives a stern warning, the criminal investigations against him or her are closed and he or she will not be prosecuted for an offence any further.

If a person had been charged with an offence before receiving the stern warning, a DATA will be issued afterwards.

Conditional warning

A conditional warning is similar to a stern warning but comes with certain conditions that the individual has to comply with. If the conditional warning is breached, the authorities have the right to prosecute the person for the offence he or she had been warned for.

If a person has been charged with an offence before receiving the conditional warning, the DATA will be issued only after all conditions in the conditional warning have been complied with.

Read our other article to find out more about stern warnings and conditional warnings in Singapore.

How Can an Accused Person be Acquitted?

Insufficient evidence to convict the accused

A person is typically acquitted due to there being insufficient evidence to incriminate the accused person.

It is a fundamental principle of criminal law that the prosecution must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that simply showing that an accused person “probably” or “most likely” committed a crime is not enough. Instead, the prosecution must show that there is no other reasonable explanation that shows that the accused is innocent of the offence.

If the prosecution is unable to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt for the court, the accused person will be acquitted.

As mentioned above, domestic helper Parti Liyani was acquitted of her charges after previously having been convicted and sentenced to 2 years and 2 months’ jail in March 2019. During her appeal, the appellate judge explained that he acquitted her partially because the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Some of the prosecution’s witnesses lacked credibility, which cast doubt on their testimony that alleged that Parti had stolen the items.
  • The court found it “rather unusual” for Parti to mostly steal items that were spoilt, broken or lacking in value to the alleged owners. This left open the possibility that Parti had simply picked up the allegedly stolen items from the trash bag after they were discarded.

The accused is of unsound mind

Another way a person may be acquitted is through the ground of unsound mind. In order to be acquitted on this ground, the person, during the commission of the offence, must have been:

  • Incapable of knowing what he or she was doing;
  • Incapable of knowing what he or she was doing is wrong; or
  • Unable to control his or her own actions.

If this is the case, the accused person will be acquitted on the ground of being of unsound mind even if the court finds that he or she had actually committed the act.

Does an Acquittal Mean a Person is Innocent?

An acquittal does not mean that an accused is definitely innocent. It just means that the court is not sufficiently convinced that the accused is guilty of an offence.

Barring cases of wrongful conviction, there are only 3 outcomes of a trial:

  1. The accused committed a crime, and he is found guilty
  2. The accused committed a crime, but his offence is not proven sufficiently so he is acquitted
  3. The accused is innocent, and he is acquitted

As can be seen through the second and third scenarios, an accused person can be acquitted regardless of whether he or she had actually committed the crime. This is because the trial process in Singapore is designed to prove guilt but not innocence.

In a 2008 Parliamentary answer, law minister K Shanmugam confirmed that it is entirely possible for a person who has committed a crime to be acquitted for a range of reasons. These include the possibility that witnesses are not found at trial, or witnesses fail to recall essential facts.

Can a Person Who has been Previously Acquitted of an Offence Later be Convicted of It?

No “double-charging”

Generally, a person who has been previously acquitted cannot be tried again for the same offence on the same facts, nor for a different offence on the same facts.

For example, a person may have been tried on a charge of theft as a servant and acquitted. While the acquittal remains in force, he cannot afterwards be charged on the same facts with theft as a servant, or with theft simply.

However, a person who has been previously acquitted can be tried again for a different offence on related or dissimilar facts. For example, a person may have been tried for only murder and acquitted. However, this person may still be charged and tried afterwards for robbery if it appears that the person had committed robbery when the murder was allegedly committed.

Being convicted on appeal

A person acquitted of an offence in a lower court can also later be convicted of the same offence if the prosecution brings a successful appeal or criminal reference against him or her. The timelines for the prosecution to file each procedure are as below:

Procedure Timeline
Appeal 14 days from decision of lower court concerning the matter
Criminal reference 1 month from decision of lower court concerning the matter

After such time has passed, the prosecution typically cannot appeal a case anymore and your acquittal is confirmed. This is unless the court finds that it is in the “interests of justice” that an appeal outside the time limit is allowed.

While considering whether a matter is in the interests of justice, the court will consider the length of the delay, whether there is a good explanation for the delay, the prospects of the appeal, and other contextual factors.

In January 2020, a nursing home employee was previously convicted, acquitted in 2018, and then finally convicted again of molesting a patient by the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal had reviewed the case through a criminal reference, where the court decided that the prosecution had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt and convicted the nursing home employee.

Can an Acquitted Person Seek Compensation for the Losses Suffered While on Trial?

Once an accused person is acquitted, it is possible for the accused to seek compensation for the losses suffered while on trial on the basis that the prosecution was “frivolous or vexatious”. If the accused’s claim succeeds, the court may order the prosecution or complainant to compensate the accused with a sum of up to $10,000.

As mentioned above, domestic helper Parti Liyani was acquitted of her theft charges. She later filed for compensation from the AGC on the basis that the prosecution was “frivolous or vexatious”. She sought $71,000 for the costs incurred from being unable to continue work as a domestic worker, and expenses for her accommodation in a shelter run by a migrant workers’ support group. During her court hearing, the judge suggested that they seek compensation through mediation with the AGC instead as it would be less costly than going to trial.

Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution process that allows both parties to resolve their dispute in the presence of a mediator. It allows parties to come up with their own solutions rather than have a judge decide for them what they ought to do during trial. As it is faster and less costly than going to trial, mediation is a good option that acquitted persons should consider when seeking compensation.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence in Singapore, it is strongly recommended that you consult a lawyer to help you prepare the necessary arguments, evidence and documents in order to build a strong case.

Although you can represent yourself in criminal proceedings, your lawyer may be able to help you to raise sufficient doubt in the prosecution’s case so as to achieve an acquittal for you.

Speak with a criminal lawyer today to determine your next steps forward.

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