Your Right to a Lawyer After Being Arrested in Singapore

Last updated on May 27, 2022

police interrogation taking place

Do I Have a Right to a Lawyer After Being Arrested?

The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore states that:

“Where a person is arrested, he shall be informed as soon as may be of the grounds of his arrest and shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.”

You might reasonably conclude from this that you have the right to a lawyer, or a “right to counsel”, if you are arrested in Singapore.

However, Singapore’s courts have interpreted this as meaning that you do NOT have a right to speak to a lawyer until “a reasonable time” after your arrest.

What Singapore’s police understand this “reasonable time” to mean in practice is that you may not speak to any lawyer, least of all a lawyer of your choice, usually until after you have either already been charged in court, or released pending further investigation after 48 hours of interrogation. Nevertheless, others (such as your family members) can still help you engage a lawyer, and obtain legal advice, during this time (more below).

If you are being investigated for an offence, read on to find out:

It is important to be aware of what rights you do and do not have because the police are not required to tell you. You will not be allowed to have a lawyer during the interrogation to tell you either.

If the police bring you to various alleged crime scenes to ask you questions about things there, neither will you be able to have a lawyer accompany you.

Your right to say only the things/facts that show you are innocent

The most important things to understand about your rights, that a lawyer would want you to know, are:

  1. You have a right NOT to say anything that could tend to show you are guilty of any crime (this is also known as the right against self-incrimination); and
  2. You HAVE to say anything that could tend to show that you are innocent of the offence for which you are being investigated, or any fact that supports a defence to such an offence.

During the interrogation, if you don’t state a fact that shows you are innocent or supports a defence, the court does not have to consider it seriously if you raise it only later.

Finally, you are required to tell the police what you know of the facts of a suspected crime (unless those facts would tend to incriminate you).

It is very difficult to simultaneously comply with all these requirements:

  • In the oppressive confines of a police station questioning room,
  • While not getting tripped up by an intimidating police interrogator who is telling you that you have to answer all her questions fully.

This is a very delicate balancing act made more difficult by the absence of a lawyer who can tell you which of the above categories the answer to a particular question would fall into, and whether you must therefore answer it or ought to remain silent.

Re-write what you wrote in your police statements for your lawyer’s reference

Because your lawyer will not be present during your interrogation and statement-taking, it is crucial that you write down everything you put in your statement as soon as you are released and provide these to your lawyer.

Your lawyer may not be able to get copies of your statements until it is too late and these statements can be used against you in court, making it very difficult for your lawyer to help you.

How Can You Engage a Lawyer If You’ve Been Arrested and When Can You Meet Them?

If you have a family member who is aware of your arrest, they may be able to engage a lawyer for you at short notice if you are lucky enough.

If this happens, the first time you will meet your lawyer may be in court and you may have only a few moments to whisper to them before they start to speak on your behalf. This will obviously not be a lawyer of your choosing as the constitution requires, but it is better than no lawyer at all, which is far more common at a first court appearance.

Why You Should Engage a Criminal Lawyer As Soon As Possible After Your Arrest

The Constitution requires the police to bring you to court or release you within 48 hours of your arrest. In either situation, engaging a lawyer as soon as possible is beneficial for the reasons explained below.

If the police bring you to court after your arrest

If the police choose to bring you to court rather than release you, they can either:

  • Ask the court for more time to hold you in remand and interrogate you, where such requests are routinely granted without too much enquiry, or they can
  • Charge you with an offence then and there.

If possible, it would be beneficial for a lawyer to be present for this court appearance to resist any application to continue holding you in remand, or to ask for your plea to be taken at a later date.

However, most people do not have that luxury as they will not be able to arrange this themselves while locked up in a police station without the right to make a phone call. In addition, many people do not have a family member who knows what to do in the event of a loved one’s arrest.

What if you have yet to engage a lawyer when charged in court?

If you are unrepresented when you are charged in court, then when the magistrate (junior judge), interpreter or court clerk reads the charge to you and asks you how you plead, you should respond by speaking loudly and clearly into the microphone and say:

“I reserve my plea and request a four-week adjournment* to engage counsel.”

*An adjournment refers to a postponement of court proceedings.

Making this request may be a very intimidating experience, but you need to protect your own interests in this way until you can engage a lawyer to take over.

If the police release you instead of bringing you to court after your arrest

Even if you are released after interrogation and not immediately charged, it is entirely possible that you will be charged at some point in the following weeks or months. Therefore, it is generally advisable to seek legal advice at the earliest possible stage.

This will allow you to better understand the police investigation process in Singapore and the possible outcomes you can expect, and prepare for the next steps you will need to take. 

In some cases, a criminal lawyer may recommend engaging her to write representations to the prosecution to explain the circumstances of the incident resulting in the investigation and to urge the prosecution to end the investigation without bringing any charges. Such representations, if sent at the right time and carefully formulated, can, in the right cases, sometimes result in an investigation being ended without charge.

What If You Cannot Afford to Engage a Criminal Lawyer?

If you cannot afford to engage a criminal lawyer, you should apply to the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) to have one assigned to you free of charge or at a heavily subsidised rate. 

Alternatively, if you have been charged with a capital offence (i.e. an offence for which you can be sentenced to the death penalty), the court will automatically assign a legal defence team after the investigation against you has concluded.

In both these situations, you will not be able to select a lawyer of your choice. For the reasons mentioned above, however, having legal representation is certainly still better than having no lawyer at all.

Any suggestion from anyone that it is a bad idea to engage a lawyer when you are the subject of a criminal investigation should be dismissed. Some police officers have been known to advise suspects not to engage a lawyer because it allegedly makes the suspect look guilty of an offence. In general, you should not take advice on your best interests from police officers, whose job is to secure a conviction.

The court will not think you are guilty just because you took the sensible and necessary step of engaging a lawyer. In fact, judges much prefer to deal with a defence counsel rather than dealing directly with an accused person who is not well-versed in the law, criminal procedure or rules of court, with which judges will want all parties to comply.

It should be clear to you from the above that the services of a criminal lawyer are invaluable and absolutely necessary if you are being investigated for or charged with a criminal offence in Singapore. Finding a criminal lawyer, even at short notice, is easy. You can get in touch with experienced criminal lawyers here.

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