Wednesday, November 13, 2019 - 22:42

Witnesses may be compelling — but handling them well to meet your goals is essential, say Mr Francis Ng SC and Mr Shashi Nathan.



Back in 2019, I jumped at the chance to lunch with two prominent men from the criminal law landscape: Mr Francis Ng SC, one of the Deputy Chief Prosecutors of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and Mr Shashi Nathan, who heads the criminal practice group at Withers KhattarWong LLP. Our conversation spanned many areas, but the one that was most interesting related to witnesses. 

Despite being a key component of the judicial process, witnesses are sometimes not given the attention and preparation they require. “I have seen some counsel surprised by their own witnesses’ answers,” says Mr Nathan. “That suggests that maybe they didn’t spend enough time with their witnesses or are just muddled their own case theory.” He adds, “Going to court is still a nerve-racking experience for most Singaporeans, so maybe that changed their answers.”

Take witnesses for instance. Both prescribe a simple fix: a mock trial that not only includes the questions but also the atmosphere and tension associated with being in a courtroom. The latter may be hard to recreate in a sun-filled meeting room, so Mr Nathan recommends that first-time witnesses sit in on other court hearings beforehand, which are open to the public, to get a flavour of what testifying in court is like.

Mr Ng adds that counsel should also pay attention to their questioning technique, for example by not repeating questions for the sake of making a point. “They might want to ‘lock in’ their answers but there’s really no need to ask again and again, and doing so may actually result in inconsistencies arising from the repeated answers that the witness gives,” he says, adding that this is something he reminds his junior prosecutors regularly about. “But what if they’re doing that because they want a different answer?” asks Mr Nathan. “Then they better be sure they’re going to get it — and for them to be sure, they really need to know their case theory, and what facts they need to prove,” says Mr Ng.

Another thing the pair agrees on? Forging bonds between prosecutors and the Criminal Bar. “Nowadays, the defence and prosecution need more opportunities to get to know one another better,” explains Mr Ng. Adds Mr Nathan, “When we were first starting out, we had to go down for pre-trial conferences personally and we’d have a chat waiting for our cases to be called.” Those early bonds have strengthened into a relationship that has helped them professionally. “When you have established mutual respect and rapport built up over years of knowing the other party, there is a great deal of trust between the prosecution and the defence that allows matters to be discussed candidly and even resolved through a phone call,” Mr Ng explained.

Mr Nathan will deliver the opening remarks at a workshop on cross-examination of expert witnesses, led by Deputy Attorney-General Mr Hri Kumar Nair SC. The in-person workshop will also include a practical session facilitated by trainers, who include Mr Ramesh Tiwary (Ramesh Tiwary). Registrations for the session are now open