Plea Bargaining in Singapore: All You Need to Know
The practice of plea bargaining came into the spotlight recently after Joshua Robinson was sentenced to a 4-year jail term after pleading guilty to several sexual offences. This article sets out what plea bargaining is about and how it is practiced in Singapore.
What is a plea bargain?
A plea bargain is an informal agreement between the Prosecution and the accused, where the accused agrees to plead guilty in exchange for some form of leniency from the Prosecution.
There are 3 main types of plea bargains:
- Charge bargain: the accused agrees to plead guilty to a certain charge(s), in exchange for the Prosecution withdrawing other charges or having them “taken into consideration” for the purpose of sentencing.
- Sentence bargain: the accused agrees to plead guilty in exchange for the Prosecution recommending a lighter sentence to Court for the accused. In Singapore, a Court is not bound by a sentence bargain and is free to depart from the Prosecution’s recommended sentence.
- Fact bargain: the accused agrees to plead guilty in exchange for the Prosecution omitting certain aggravating facts or facts relevant to sentencing from the Statement of Facts presented to Court.
Why would the Prosecution enter into a plea bargain with the accused?
Even where the Prosecution is confident of succeeding at trial, there are recognised public benefits in securing a plea bargain with the accused rather than proceeding to trial.
- A plea bargain saves the Courts and Prosecution time, effort and resources which would otherwise be expended on a full blown trial. The accused also avoids the cost of engaging a lawyer to represent him at trial.
- In some cases like Robinson’s, entering into a plea bargain means that the victims need not go through the ordeal of testifying and undergoing cross-examination at trial.
Plea bargaining remains a controversial practice
Despite its apparent public benefits, plea bargaining remains a controversial practice around the world. The practice has been especially heavily criticised in the US, where plea bargaining is deeply entrenched to the point that criminal trials are now rare in some states.
Some of the common criticisms are:
- Plea bargaining can be seen as sacrificing justice for efficiency.
- An innocent person may be pressured into accepting a plea bargain, to avoid the risk of being slapped with a much harsher sentence if he is convicted at trial. Prosecutors in the US are known to use high pressure tactics like “exploding offers” (i.e. offers which expire within a short period of time) to coerce accused persons into accepting plea bargains.
- There are usually fewer procedural safeguards to protect an accused’s rights during plea bargaining, compared to a Court trial. For example, evidence against the accused which is not admissible in a Court trial may be brought up by the Prosecution during plea bargaining.
The baggage of the term “plea bargaining” may explain why many countries like Singapore avoid using it.
How are plea bargains negotiated in Singapore?
Negotiations between the Prosecution and Defence Counsel for consensual case disposal is an established practice in Singapore, even if it is not expressly labelled as “plea bargaining”.
Negotiations may take the form of written representations to the Prosecution from the accused or his Defence Counsel.
In person negotiations can also take place in two forums:
- Criminal Case Management System (CCMS): The CCMS allows the Prosecution and Defence Counsel to meet at an early stage in the proceedings, to discuss the accused’s case in private. Other than narrowing the issues in dispute, they may discuss the merits of a guilty plea.
- Criminal Case Resolution (CCR) Program: The CCR Program allows the Prosecution, Defence Counsel and accused to negotiate for consensual case disposal in the presence of a senior Judge. A case can be referred for the CCR Program if all parties agree and there is a reasonable chance of successful negotiations.
The CCR Judge will facilitate plea negotiations by acting as a neutral mediator, for example, by giving sentencing indications to help the accused decide whether a plea bargain is in his interest.
While elements of plea bargaining are inherent in the CCMS and CCR Program, there is in fact no “formalised” plea bargaining framework in Singapore.
Contrast this to the US, where plea bargaining must be conducted in accordance with a formal legal framework in the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. For example:
- Plea bargains in the US must be reflected in a formal “plea agreement” and disclosed to the Court.
- The US Courts must follow specified procedures in accepting or rejecting the plea agreement.
- There are also express rules governing the admissibility of statements made during plea negotiations if the case later goes to trial.
In 2014, Minister for Law K Shanmugam announced that the Ministry of Law and AGC were studying a “formalised” plea bargaining framework. Earlier this month (March), it was reported in the Straits Times that the review had concluded that no major changes were desirable or necessary to the current system in Singapore.
If you are facing criminal charges
Whether to enter into a plea bargain or claim trial is a matter entirely for you to decide, and you should have complete freedom of choice in making this decision.
Should you decide to seek a plea bargain, it is advisable for you to be represented by a criminal defence lawyer to ensure that you secure a bargain which is in your interest.
A lawyer will be able to assist you by:
- Advising you on whether to seek a plea bargain or whether one offered by the Prosecution is in your interest. It is important for you to be aware of your chances of acquittal if you claim trial, or how the plea bargain compares to your likely sentence if you are convicted at trial.
- Writing representations to the Prosecution on your behalf.
- Representing you at the CCMS and CCR Program. Generally, the CCMS and CCR Program are available only if the accused is represented by a lawyer.
If you are unable to afford a lawyer, you may wish to consider seeking assistance through the following schemes:
- Primary Justice Project (PJP): The PJP is administered by the Community Justice Centre. Under the PJP, you can approach any volunteer lawyer listed on the Primary Justice panel for basic legal services. Cases under the CCMS and CCR Program are considered to be suitable for the PJP.
- Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS): If your case is eligible under CLAS, you may be assigned a lawyer to provide pro bono legal advice even if you intend to plead guilty.
Should you wish to consult a lawyer on your options, you can contact one via our Find a Lawyer service.
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