Guide to Filing a Criminal Revision in Singapore

Last updated on November 11, 2020

accused, police officer and lawyer standing infront of court house

Imagine the following scenario: you have been arrested in Singapore. Your charges are read to you in the State Courts, and you decide to plead guilty to them. You are then sentenced to a jail term, and wind up in jail.

Alone in your cell, it suddenly dawns on you that you don’t actually believe you have committed an offence, and want to retract your guilty plea.

But you can’t, because the High Court cannot entertain appeals for retracting pleas of guilt made in the State Courts.

If the above situation sounds like a dilemma you’re currently facing, filing a petition for criminal revision may be the solution for you. Read on to find out more about what this entails and whether this may be appropriate for you.

This article will cover:

What is a Criminal Revision?

A criminal revision is where the High Court will examine the record of any criminal proceedings before the State Courts (such as in the District Courts or Magistrate’s Court), and correct any irregularities it finds.

Only the High Court can hear applications for criminal revision. Neither the Court of Appeal nor the State Courts have the same power. Therefore, if your original trial was conducted in the High Court, you will not be able to file a petition for criminal revision.

As for the specific powers available to the High Court on revision, these are fairly wide-ranging and aimed at ensuring the correctness of the proceedings in the lower court. For example, if an irregularity that occurred in the lower court’s proceedings is because of a missing or disputed fact, the High Court may either take additional evidence itself or direct such evidence to be taken by the lower court.

Other powers the High Court possesses in a criminal revision are those which it is able to exercise on hearing an appeal. Among other things, the High Court may:

  • Reverse your finding of guilt and either acquit you or order you to be retried;
  • Alter your finding of guilt itself, meaning the High Court may itself change your conviction from one of offence X to offence Y;
  • Change the nature of your sentence (such as from a jail term to just a fine); or
  • Reduce or enhance your sentence.

In short, the High Court takes on a rather paternalistic role when it exercises its powers of revision. Should there be something genuinely and/or blatantly wrong with your proceedings in the lower court, the High Court will likely be inclined to remedy the irregularity, so fear not at being left high and dry.

Furthermore, the High Court can choose to revise your case even if you do not apply for a criminal revision. This may happen when an application for criminal revision is submitted by the lower court itself. The High Court may also do so of its own accord when hearing an appeal for your case on another matter.

How Is a Criminal Revision Different From a Criminal Appeal?

At this point, you may think that the effect of a criminal revision is almost the same as a criminal appeal. Admittedly, this is true to the extent that both involve a higher court reviewing the decisions of an inferior court, and that both may result in a change in the outcome of your conviction or sentence.

However, the court has emphasised that a criminal revision should not be seen as a backdoor appeal. Indeed, it is relatively harder for a criminal revision application to succeed. This is because an applicant will need to prove that not only has there been a mistake, but that grave injustice has also arisen as a consequence of that mistake. This will be discussed later in this article.

A Common Use of Criminal Revisions: Retracting a Guilty Plea

One of the most common uses of criminal revision is when an accused wishes to retract his guilty plea and contest the charge against him.

This is because, under the Criminal Procedure Code, an accused who has pleaded guilty and convicted on that plea in the State Courts cannot appeal against his conviction. Therefore, a criminal revision to the High Court remains the only solution for him to overturn his conviction.

As for why an accused might want to have his guilty plea retracted, this may be because he had been pressured to plead guilty in the first place.

For example, in a 2008 case, an accused had originally pleaded guilty to trafficking 329g of cannabis, and was sentenced to 9 years’ jail and 6 strokes of the cane. Dissatisfied with the sentence, the accused filed a petition for criminal revision and sought to retract his guilty plea. The High Court allowed his petition and ordered him to be retried in light of overwhelming evidence that he had been pressured to plead guilty.

The court came to this conclusion based on the fact that the accused had consistently maintained his innocence, from the time he was arrested to the day he pleaded guilty in the District Courts. There was also no objective evidence (such as the presence of fingerprints) linking the accused to the parcel of drugs in question.

Importantly, at the time of his guilty plea, the offender was faced with the stark choice of claiming trial and risking being sent to jail for more than 20 years if he was wrongly convicted, or pleading guilty to a lesser charge and going to jail for a markedly reduced term of at least 5 years.

Coupled with his lawyer’s pessimism about his chances of acquittal, as well as the accused’s own lack of funds to claim trial, the High Court had its doubts about the accused genuinely having the freedom to choose to plead guilty, and held that he had faced immense pressure to do so. The accused’s conviction was thus set aside, and the matter was ordered to be retried.

Other Situations in Which a Petition for Criminal Revision Can Be Filed

In general, you may file a petition for criminal revision only when an appeal cannot be filed for your matter (such as when you want to retract a guilty plea made in the State Courts, as explained above). This is unless the petition is made against a sentence imposed by a court which the court is not competent to impose.

This happened in 1969, when a case involving Voluntarily Causing Grievous Hurt (VCGH) was heard in the Magistrate’s Court – because the Magistrate’s Court can try only offences for which the maximum jail term does not exceed 5 years, it acted in excess of its powers by hearing a VCGH case, which then had a maximum jail term of 7 years.

In that case, the Magistrate had granted the accused a discharge amounting to an acquittal. Upon hearing the petition for criminal revision, the High Court exercised its powers of revision to alter the order to one of discharge only. This was because the Magistrate still had the power to discharge the accused despite not having the power to acquit.

You may wish to refer to our other article to find out more about the difference between a discharge amounting to an acquittal, and a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

A criminal revision may also be appropriate where certain material facts surface after an individual has been convicted, which may affect whether the individual should have been convicted in the first place.

For example, an alcoholic husband was convicted of VCGH for fracturing his wife’s nose. He was sentenced to 6 months and 2 weeks’ jail. However, after he was sentenced, it was revealed that there was, in fact, no nose fracture.

Consequently, the judge admitted in his written decision that had he known of this earlier, he would have sentenced the husband to only a 3 months’ jail under a less serious charge of voluntarily causing hurt instead.

Unfortunately, the judge could no longer change his decision since the time permitted for him to do so had expired – errors in the exercise of a court’s sentencing powers must be corrected by the next working day following the judgment.

Given the potential injustice of the husband being wrongly convicted of a more serious charge – and hence being sentenced to a longer sentence than might have been appropriate for his offence – the judge thus indicated that an application for criminal revision was likely to succeed in that case.

What Are the Chances of My Application for Criminal Revision Succeeding?

The High Court exercises its powers of revision sparingly. There must be something “palpably wrong” in the lower court’s decision that causes “serious injustice” (whether to the offender or others) before the High Court will grant a criminal revision. Hence, the applicant must not only prove that there is some error in the judgment, but also that material injustice has occurred as a result.

The following are some examples where the court found that there was a “serious injustice” that required it to exercise its powers of criminal revision:

Where an offender was sentenced based on an inaccurate charge and statement of facts

In one 2004 case, the offender was originally sentenced to 24 months’ jail for having consensual oral sex with the victim, which was at that time an offence. However, after sentencing, it was discovered that the victim had only been 15 years old at the time of the offence, instead of 16 as originally stated in the charge and statement of facts.

In Singapore, the legal age for consensual sex is 16 years old. Because the victim had been younger than 16 at the time of the offence, the fact that she had consented to the act of oral sex could not be used as a reason to reduce the offender’s sentence.

Instead, a higher jail term was needed to convey the severity of an offence committed against young victims. The Public Prosecutor thus brought an application for criminal revision to amend the charge and statement of facts, so that the offender could be resentenced.

Subsequently, the High Court found the situation a “serious injustice” because of the need to protect young victims against sexual predators, and allowed the criminal revision. Nevertheless, the offender’s sentence was eventually reduced to 12 months’ jail as the offender had pleaded guilty at the first instance, and that the original sentence imposed was disproportionately high compared to previous cases.

Unjustified police retention of property

In another case, the police had seized property belonging to the petitioners for criminal investigations. It continued to retain the property beyond the one-year time limit despite the property having no relevance to its investigations.

The court thus found “serious injustice” in the police’s retention of the seized property without any legal basis, and ordered the property to be released to the petitioners.

Can My Sentence Be Enhanced Upon Revision?

In a Parliamentary response in 1993, the then-Minister for Law S. Jayakumar stated that: “in practice, the sentences are never enhanced on revision as opposed to appeal, except where the court below was unaware of a mandatory minimum sentence”. He also noted that the High Court’s revisionary powers are normally exercised in favour of the accused.

Since then, however, there have been several instances where the High Court has used its powers of revision to enhance sentences.

For example, an appellant had initially pleaded guilty in the District Court to a total of 10 charges under the Computer Misuse Act and the Penal Code for using cloned bank cards to withdraw money from various ATMs. He was sentenced to 5.5 years’ jail, and appealed against his sentence.

On appeal, the High Court not only dismissed the appellant’s contentions, but also used its revisionary powers to enhance his sentence to 8.5 years. One reason for doing so was due to the need to deter others from threatening the security of the country’s financial institutions.

In another case involving extortion and outrage of modesty, the High Court interpreted the petitioner’s very action of bringing the petition for criminal revision as a sign of his unrepentance and lack of remorse. This was coupled with other aggravating factors such as his “reprehensible” conduct in forcing the victim to perform degrading acts. The petitioner’s sentence was thus enhanced from 30 months’ jail and 4 strokes of the cane to 48 months’ jail and 6 strokes of the cane.

Given the uncertainty surrounding this issue, you are advised to engage a criminal lawyer to properly evaluate your situation before making a final decision on whether to file a criminal revision.

Can I Appeal Against the Outcome of My Criminal Revision Application?

Unfortunately, you will not be able to appeal against the High Court’s use of its revisionary powers. Unless Parliament amends the law on this issue in the future, the decision of the High Court in a criminal revision case is final.

Nevertheless, if there is a question of law of public interest, any party to the matter may apply to the Court of Appeal for permission to refer the question to it.

How Do I File a Criminal Revision Application?

To commence your application, you will need to submit a completed Petition for Revision form and supporting affidavit through the eLitigation website. The Petition for Revision form can be found as Form 70 in the Schedule of the Criminal Procedure Rules 2018.

Since only licensed law firms can subscribe to eLitigation, your lawyer will likely be able to submit your documents for you if you are represented. If you do not wish to hire a lawyer, you can make a physical visit to the LawNet & CrimsonLogic Service Bureau to file your application.

If cost is a concern, you may apply for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) through the Law Society’s website. This scheme allows eligible applicants to obtain legal representation at a subsidised rate.

If your CLAS application is successful, you will be assigned a lawyer who will then be able to advise you on how you should proceed with your case, including whether a criminal revision is suitable for you. Should this be so, your assigned lawyer will likely have access to the eLitigation website to submit the requisite documents on your behalf.

Filing an application for criminal revision is a relatively complex matter, and whether to do so is often highly dependent on the individual facts and circumstances of each case. It would hence be beneficial for you to engage a criminal lawyer to obtain more targeted advice for your personal situation.

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