Friday, March 24, 2023 - 09:57



The camaraderie of the Criminal Bar was on full display last week as members gathered for a lively discussion on best practices in court. They heard a range of views from the Bench (provided by Justice Mavis Chionh), defence counsel (thanks to Mr Sunil Sudheesan), the prosecution (shared by DPP Mr Ng Yiwen) and academia (courtesy of A/Prof Mervyn Cheong). Their discussion was expertly moderated by veteran lawyer Mr Ramesh Tiwary, who chairs the Criminal Justice Working Group of the SAL Professional Affairs Committee. Ms Diana Ngiam, the Working Group's co-chair, also shared her inputs. 

Here are key takeaways from the session, which focused on the Bench’s perspective of best practices.


“It may sound very basic but don’t be rude!” That was Justice Chionh’s message for lawyers, saying that both the prosecution and defence were sometimes guilty of it. “I have seen counsel shaking their heads when their opponent is making a submission or asking a question. When you do this, all that you’re telling the court is that you have bad manners. Laughing or sniggering when your opponent, or even the witness, makes a point, or making sarcastic comments about the witness … nothing is achieved for your client’s interests through acts like these.”


And perhaps another foundational point: know your material. Criminal lawyers may not receive as much documentary evidence as their civil counterparts but there are still of documents to go through, starting with the charge. “Maybe even go back to the statute to see what elements make up the of the offence and see where they are found within the charge,” she advised.



According to Justice Chionh, this goes beyond a mere “my client didn’t do it”. “I suggest going beyond the immediate denial of the act and thinking about the larger narrative,” she said. “For example, if the accused says he didn’t do it and the complainant says he did, what does the accused say is the complainant’s reason for insisting on their version of events?  Who else besides the accused can attest to this?”

After building your narrative, take some time to work through which material supports your narrative and which does not. “Work through how you intend to deal with material that doesn’t support your narrative, because this won’t go away.”

Finally, she added, “Don’t be so preoccupied with your narrative that you miss the cues the court is giving you. The judge will typically ask questions along the way: these questions usually indicate their concerns. Learn to read these cues and be responsive to them.”


Inspiration may be handy, but you can’t enter a cross-examination relying on it. “I know many people don’t like to do this—but it’s generally good practice to write down your cross-examination questions,” opined Justice Chionh. “Work through the possible permutations and combinations, especially for key witnesses. A witness’ answer may take you into a completely different line of questioning, so it’s good to work this out beforehand. Don’t trust inspiration to strike when you’re on your feet in court.”


“Be very clear about why you are adducing the expert report,” shared Justice Chionh. “The questions you pose to your expert are important because they determine the inquiry they will conduct, so pay a lot of attention to how you frame your questions. Make sure you go through the report to satisfy yourself that it answers clearly the questions you posed.”

There are some minimum standards expected of expert witnesses, she added, turning to case law[1] to make her point. “Experts owe a duty to the court to ensure that their evidence is cogent, reliable and may be gainfully used in the proceedings for which they were prepared – and solicitors have a duty to properly instruct the experts they appoint.”

“It’s also clear that the courts expect reasonably competent practitioners to be able to appreciate when an expert’s report is unsatisfactory and in no state to be adduced as evidence,” she explained. “Some red flags including having no details of the expert’s findings, no reasons given for findings and a report based solely on information provided by the accused.”

“Does the expert’s report disclose methodology, diagnostic criteria, clinical observations and offer substantiation for the conclusions expressed? Is there objective verification of information provided by the accused through medical reports and interviews with other persons, for instance?”


“Whether you are defence counsel or prosecutor, you are fulfilling a crucial role in the justice system: what you contribute to the proper functioning of that system is bigger than individual success or loss in individual cases,” reflected Justice Chionh.

Watch this space for a recording of the session, which will be available soon. Last week's session was organised by the Criminal Justice Working Group of the SAL Professional Affairs Committee.

[1] Miya Manik v Public Prosecutor [2021] 2 SLR 1169 at [50] and [74].