Can I Represent Myself in a Criminal Court Case in Singapore and How?
If you are an accused person in a criminal case, you can either choose to be represented by a lawyer or conduct your own case.
This article will help you understand your right to self-representation and explain what you need to know if you decide to represent yourself in a criminal court case.
Understanding Your Right to Self-Representation in a Criminal Case
What happens if I choose to represent myself in court?
As a self-represented accused, you will be held to the same standard of preparation as lawyers for any criminal proceeding. This means that you must:
- Attend all court hearings;
- Submit the relevant court documents punctually and in the correct format;
- Comply with all the relevant rules and legal procedures; and
- Familiarise yourself with applicable laws and legal principles in preparing for the criminal proceedings.
When should I consider representing myself in court?
You can consider representing yourself in court if:
- You are confident and do not feel too intimidated by the legal procedures, or appearing before a judge in court;
- You are prepared to put in the time and effort to research your case and the applicable legal principles involved; or
- You wish to speak strongly and directly to the judge and present your case.
Otherwise, you may wish to engage a lawyer or speak to one before you make a decision.
When should I engage a lawyer to represent me instead and why?
As criminal charges often carry heavy penalties to an individual, it is always best to seek the advice of an experienced criminal lawyer to help you better decide if you wish to proceed as a self-represented accused or to be represented by a legal counsel.
A lawyer would bear the full responsibility of preparing for and conducting your case by:
- Preparing all the necessary legal documents;
- Clarifying your rights and obligations and, the defences that would be available to you; and
- Representing you at the various court hearings and/or trial.
Your lawyer would also correspond with the relevant parties in a criminal proceeding, such as the prosecution.
Can I engage a lawyer to represent me halfway through the proceedings?
You are permitted to engage a lawyer at any point during the proceedings.
Should you wish to do so, you may apply for an adjournment (i.e. postponement) of the proceedings by verbally informing the judge during the court hearing.
If your request for an adjournment is approved, you will receive a mention slip which will indicate the venue, date and time of your next court hearing.
Your lawyer whom you have engaged will then represent you in subsequent hearings and proceedings.
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What if I cannot afford to hire a criminal lawyer or I’ve chose to represent myself but require legal assistance?
If you are a Singapore citizen or Permanent Resident who is residing in Singapore and cannot afford to hire a criminal lawyer, you may wish to consider approaching the following organisations for assistance on engaging the services of a criminal lawyer.
Or, if you choose to represent yourself, programmes that may be of great help to you include:
1) Pro Bono Services Office of the Law Society of Singapore
The Law Society Pro Bono Services’ Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) assists individuals who are unable to afford a lawyer to defend the criminal charges posed against them.
Under CLAS, a volunteer lawyer will be appointed to represent you for non-capital offences under the applicable statutes.
You must make an application for CLAS online via this online form.
2) Community Justice Centre
The Community Justice Centre (CJC) HELP Services Centre offers various programmes to assist accused persons who are self-represented. These include:
- On-site Legal Advice Scheme, where you can consult a volunteer lawyer for 20 minutes of free legal advice. However, the volunteer lawyer will be unable to represent you in court;
- Primary Justice Project (Criminal), where a lawyer can help you make representations at meetings with the prosecution and/or a judge;
- CJC Guidance for Plea Scheme (GPS), where volunteer lawyers help self-represented individuals by advising on the viability of his or her defence; and
- Friends of Litigants-in-Person (FLiP), which focuses on providing self-represented individuals with emotional support and practical guidance on the processes and procedures involved in a criminal proceeding. Do note that this scheme is only applicable to less severe offences, such as theft and public order offences.
3) Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO)
If you are charged with a capital offence – i.e. an offence carrying the death penalty – you will be automatically assigned free legal counsel under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO).
Making Your First Appearance and Pre-Trial Proceedings
If you are charged in court for a criminal offence, you will first be brought before a Criminal Mentions Court where the charge will be officially read and explained to you.
You will then be asked if you are pleading guilty to the charge, or claiming trial.
The following infographic is a summary of the criminal trial process:
(Click on the image to download it in a new tab.)
Attending a Pre-Trial Conference
If you choose to claim trial, the Mentions Court will fix the case for a Pre-Trial Conference (PTC).
What is a PTC? What happens during a PTC?
The purpose of a PTC is to determine if the case is ready to proceed to trial. As a self-represented accused, you are required to attend the PTC together with the prosecution.
During the PTC, the judge will be informed of the nature of the evidence that will be presented by you and the prosecution on the day of the trial.
You should address the following during the PTC:
- Request for a copy of any written statement given by you to the police, if the prosecution intends to present such a statement as evidence or bring it up during the trial;
- Indicate to the judge and the prosecution the number of witnesses that you wish to call at the trial; and
- Notify the judge that you require the assistance of an interpreter during the trial if you or your witnesses cannot speak English.
At the PTC, both you and the prosecution will be required to update the court on the progress of the case. The court will give necessary directions to ensure that the case proceeds in a fair and expedient manner.
When a case is ready to proceed for trial, a Criminal Case Disclosure Conference (CCDC) will be convened should you choose to.
Otherwise, the court will proceed to fix a date for trial following the PTC. In the meantime, you may wish to prepare for the trial and court hearings.
However, if you choose not to partake in the CCDC, the prosecution and you would not be able to review and consider each other’s cases (including evidence, written statements) before the trial, and you would have to prepare for the trial/hearing without such considerations (see below).
What is a Criminal Case Disclosure Conference (CCDC)?
A CCDC facilitates smoother trials by requiring both sides (i.e. the prosecution and you, the defence) to reveal their cases and the evidence that each side intends to rely on at the pre-trial stage.
Do note, however, that the CCDC is only applicable to specific types of cases.
Since participation in a CCDC is optional, you can decide whether you wish to participate or not. However, choosing to participate in the CCDC may allow you the opportunity to better understand the prosecution’s case in relation to your offence before the trial.
If you decide to participate in the CCDC, the court will give a series of directions that you and the prosecution will have to comply with. This includes the prosecution presenting his case (i.e. “Case for the Prosecution”), which contains the evidence held against you.
Upon reviewing the prosecution’s case and you still maintain that you wish to claim trial, you will be directed to prepare the “Case for the Defence”, which consists of the following:
- Your defence to the charge/s;
- A summary of your defence and any relevant supporting fact;
- A list of your witnesses, which includes their names and personal particulars;
- A description of the documents and other relevant items that you intend to produce as your evidence at the trial; and
- Any objections that you may wish to raise against the prosecution’s case.
You will have to prepare the Case for the Defence in English and a copy must be provided to the court as well as to the prosecution.
After submitting your Case for the Defence, the prosecution will provide you copies of the Case for the Prosecution along with copies of other written statements that you might have made in the course of the investigations relating to your case.
You should review the prosecution’s case and any written statements as you prepare for the trial.
CCDCs are conducted in the Supreme Court on a weekly basis and are not open to the public.
Preparing for the Trial and Court Hearings
Ensuring the presence of my witnesses at trial
In the lead-up to the trial, it is your responsibility to ensure that all your witnesses turn up on the date of the trial.
If you are unsure whether your witnesses will turn up, you may apply at the Crime Registry for a Summons to a Witness to be issued against that witness. This is chargeable at S$20 per Summon issued.
The document will be served on the relevant witnesses via a court process server.
How should I prepare the evidence that I intend to present at the trial?
Before the trial, you must also ensure that you have all the evidence that you need prepared.
For evidence in the form of documents or photographs, you must ensure that you have at least 4 copies of each document – the original document will be presented to the court, while the other copies are for the prosecution, one copy for each witness that you intend to call for the trial, and your own copy.
Any digital evidence (e.g. WhatsApp messages) may be submitted as court evidence, subject to the court’s discretion.
It is also important to ensure that the maker of any document or photograph is present in court, or the document may not be admitted as evidence for the trial.
For example, if you wish to rely on a company letter, you must ensure that the person from your company who signed off on the letter is able to attend the hearing to prove that he/she made the document.
Preparation of witness questions
In preparation for the trial, you may also wish to prepare a list of questions that you would like to raise to your witnesses as well as the prosecution’s witnesses (see below for the type of questions you may ask).
On the Day of the Trial
Please be sure to arrive early to ensure that you are at the right court and on time for the trial. If you are late or absent, a Warrant of Arrest may be issued against you.
Upon arrival, you will need to inform the Court Officer of your presence by presenting your identity card and confirming that your case is fixed for hearing in that court.
What court etiquette should I be mindful of?
As a self-represented accused, it is important that you observe basic court etiquette when attending a court hearing. This means ensuring that you:
- Are dressed appropriately and avoid shabby or indecent attire;
- Switch off or put your mobile phone to silent mode while the court is in session;
- Address others in the courtroom correctly (e.g. address the judge as ‘Your Honour’, the prosecutor as “the learned prosecutor”, and the witnesses by their surname).
Where do my witnesses wait?
Unless your witness is called to the stand to testify, your witness must remain outside the courtroom.
The prosecutor’s case
What should I do while the prosecution presents their case?
During trial, the judge will read your charge and explain it to you, before confirming whether you wish to plead guilty or claim trial to the charges.
If you confirm that you wish to claim trial, the prosecution will begin by presenting its case. This may be done by providing an outline of the prosecution’s case and what the prosecution seeks to establish through the trial.
Next, the prosecution will call on its witnesses to give evidence through the Examination-in-Chief. This is the questioning of a witness by the party, in this case the prosecution.
While the prosecution calls their witnesses to give evidence, you should listen carefully to the questions asked by the prosecution and the answers given by the witnesses and make notes for your own reference.
Can I object to any of the prosecution’s questions?
During the Examination-in-Chief, the prosecution is not allowed to ask the witnesses leading questions that suggest or hint at an answer. For example, by giving a version of the events to the witnesses and asking them to agree or disagree with him.
Instead, only broadly-phrased questions that will allow the witness to narrative his/her account of the facts and events should be asked.
If the prosecutor asks a leading question, you may object to it. When you object, you should stand up and say, “I object, your Honour”, and then proceed to explain why you objected to the question.
The prosecutor will have the opportunity to respond to the objection and the judge will then decide if the objection should be allowed. If you are unsure about whether you can object or not, you may ask the judge for help.
You may also object to a question if it is:
- Irrelevant to the charges that have been brought against you. For example, if the prosecution tries to use your past criminal record as evidence to show that you are a person of bad character;
- Hearsay evidence (i.e. statements made by a person who is not in court as a witness but was overheard by one of the witnesses);
- Evidence that is the opinion of the witness (unless the witness is an expert witness, i.e. individuals with specialised knowledge such as doctors).
Can I ask the prosecution’s witnesses questions?
You can ask the prosecution’s witnesses questions after the prosecution concludes the Examination-in-Chief – this is known as Cross-Examination.
You are permitted to ask the witness questions, including any leading questions (which can only be asked during the Cross-Examination), as these questions would hint the answer to the witness and strengthen your case while highlighting any inconsistencies or errors in the witnesses’ earlier testimony.
You may also wish to show the witness any documentary or photographic evidence to challenge what was said by the witness during the Examination-in-Chief.
What are some of the questions that I can ask the prosecution’s witnesses?
As a self-represented accused, it is also your responsibility to ask the right questions that you believe will help your case. You should therefore ask the witnesses questions that will weaken the prosecution’s case.
For example, you may wish to show that the:
- Witnesses’ testimonies were inconsistent or had illogical aspects;
- Witnesses have incorrect or insufficient knowledge about the circumstances of the case;
- Witnesses are unreliable; or
- Witnesses are not telling the truth.
However, you are not allowed to ask questions that would scare, insult or embarrass the witnesses.
The calling of the defence
After the prosecution has presented their case and called all their witnesses, the court will decide if the prosecution’s case is strong enough for you to answer the charge. If so, the court will ask you to present your defence and you will be given two options:
- Take the stand and give evidence while under oath; or
- Remain silent and choose not to take the stand.
If you choose to remain silent, the court may draw all reasonable inferences, including those that may be unfavourable to you, when deciding whether you are guilty of committing the offence or not.
Regardless of which of the two options you choose, you are entitled to call your witnesses to testify in support of your defence. You are also liable to answer questions from the prosecutor.
Presenting my defence
If you choose to take the stand and give evidence while under oath, you are to give your version of the events, upon introducing your name, address and current occupation.
You will have to give your evidence from the witness box and under oath or affirmation.
When presenting your case, it is important that you give all the evidence that you want the judge to hear.
You should also be mindful not to make any inappropriate remarks about persons or things while giving evidence and instead, focus on telling the judge the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding your case.
Finally, when producing evidence to the court (e.g. documents, text messages), you should also explain to the judge what the evidence is for by providing some details about it.
When you have finished giving your evidence and after cross-examination by the prosecution, you may call your other witnesses to the stand and ask them questions.
What are the questions that I can ask my witnesses?
You should begin by asking your witness to provide the court with some basic information, such as his/her name, age and occupation. If you have called expert witnesses, you should ask your witness to explain to the court his/her qualifications as an expert.
You may then proceed to ask your witness questions which you think might help you or weaken the prosecution’s case. It is important to note that your witness should only testify to facts that are relevant to the case and within his/her personal knowledge.
In addition, you must not ask your witnesses:
- Leading questions (mentioned above)
- His/her views on the evidence of other witnesses
- His/her opinions (unless your witness is an expert witness)
- His/her comments on the law
- His/her comments, thoughts and views of another person involved in the case.
Can the prosecutor ask my witnesses questions?
When you are done asking your witnesses questions, the prosecution will begin the cross-examination of your witnesses. This means that the prosecutor can and may ask your witnesses questions to challenge the evidence that they had given earlier.
Once your witnesses have been cross-examined by the prosecution, you will be able to re-examine your witnesses to clarify what they said earlier in cross-examination. For example, you may ask your witness questions to explain or contradict what was put to him or her by the prosecution during the cross-examination.
However, re-examination is not an opportunity for you to raise new evidence. You are only permitted to ask questions to explain or clarify matters that were raised in-cross-examination.
End of Trial
At the end of the trial, the judge will give you and the prosecutor the opportunity to make closing submissions.
This allows both parties to present a summary of the evidence and arguments to persuade the judge to decide the case either in the prosecution’s or defence’s favour.
You will be asked to present your closing submissions first, followed by the prosecution.
How do I make a closing submission?
In your closing submission, you should focus on the issues that are relevant to your defence and explain to the judge why he/she should believe you.
You may also choose to highlight weaknesses in the prosecution’s case (e.g. weaknesses in evidence) to explain why you should not be found guilty of the offence that you have been charged with.
In addition, you will be allowed to talk about all of the evidence that was presented during the trial. This can include any document, photograph or video that was put into evidence.
If you cannot remember what was said at trial, you may apply for a copy of the Notes of Evidence from the Crime Registry, which is located at Level 1 of the State Courts. The Notes of Evidence is a word-for-word transcript of what has been said at trial by the judge, prosecution, defence and witnesses.
However, do note that the Notes of Evidence will not be available for collection immediately after all the evidence has been presented as the various stages of the criminal trial would not have taken place on the same day. It is possible that you may have to wait for a few days or even weeks to apply for a copy once the trial has concluded.
In addition, it is important to note that you are not allowed to bring up new evidence during your closing submissions.
Can I challenge the judge’s verdict?
After hearing the closing submissions, the judge will decide the case based on the evidence presented and give his/her decision.
If you are found not guilty, the trial process comes to an end and you are free to leave the court.
If you are convicted and found guilty of the offence in question, the case will proceed to sentencing and mitigation.
At sentencing, the prosecution will inform the court whether there are other charges to be taken-into-consideration (TIC charges).
For example, if you are facing 5 counts of shoplifting charges, and you are found guilty of only 2 charges, the prosecution will inform the court to take into consideration the other 3 charges in determining the appropriate sentence for you.
The prosecution will also inform the court of your previous criminal record, if any, before presenting its submissions on the sentence that the court should impose.
When the prosecution is submitting on the sentence, they will refer to sentences that have been imposed in similar cases decided by the courts.
You should listen to the cases that the prosecution refers to and take down notes. If you do not agree with the prosecution’s submission, you should inform the court when you submit your mitigation plea.
In mitigation, you will persuade the judge to lighten the sentence that has been proposed by the prosecution in its submission.
You will have to provide the judge, either orally or in writing, various mitigating factors that should be taken into consideration in your sentencing. These can include facts regarding your personal background, any medical conditions, as well as the circumstances behind the offence committed.
Examples of mitigating factors include explaining to the judge that you were cooperative throughout the investigations and that you are remorseful for your actions.
Do note that after you have provided your mitigation plea, the prosecution will be given the opportunity to reply to your submission before the judge proceeds to consider the appropriate sentence for your case.
Filing an Appeal
If you are dissatisfied with the judge’s verdict and/or sentence, you may file a Notice of Appeal with the Crime Registry within 14 calendar days (excluding the day of sentencing) for a fee of S$50.
After the Notice of Appeal is filed, the court will prepare the Grounds of Decision for the case which contains the judge’s reasons for his/her decision. A copy of the Grounds of Decision will be delivered to you and after reviewing the Grounds, you can consider if you wish to pursue the appeal.
If you wish to continue pursuing your appeal, you must then file a Petition of Appeal with the Centralised Appeal Registry located at the State Courts within 14 calendar days from when you receive the Grounds of Decision.
Should you fail to file your petition within this time period, the appeal will be taken as withdrawn and the Trial Court shall enforce its sentence or order against you.
If you have successfully filed your petition within the 14-day period, you will be informed of the hearing dates of your appeal in due course.
For more information, refer to our article on filing a criminal appeal in Singapore.
Choosing to represent yourself in a criminal case is not easy and without formal legal training, it can be difficult to understand the legal rules and court procedures.
Hence, it is important that if you decide to represent yourself, you understand how to conduct yourself and your case in accordance with the law and court procedures that have been outlined above.
Finally, if you are still unsure about whether you wish to represent yourself, it is always best to consult with and engage a criminal lawyer to present your case in court, after carefully considering the benefits and challenges of self-representation.
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