OP-ED: Accused males in sexual-related cases should not be media-shamed until after guilty verdictApr 27, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership
Mr Tan Kah Heng had banked on his newly opened bubble tea shop to help pay for his younger son’s university education overseas. But his plan was derailed after two of his employees accused him of molesting them.
After the two alleged victims filed police reports against him in late-2017, he found himself short on manpower and soon had to shutter the business.
During his court trial, which began in October last year, Mr Tan struggled to find odd jobs, occasionally helping friends to deliver goods. The divorcee with two adult-age sons also went from renting his own room to staying with his older sister.
He was eventually acquitted of eight outrage of modesty charges in February due to the employees’ unconvincing evidence — more than three years after the allegations surfaced. The 56-year-old now delivers flowers but has remained without a steady job.
Mr Tan’s case underscores the challenges that many accused persons face while waiting for their day in court. The process can take months or even years, leaving their lives in limbo and their future uncertain.
It is not over for Mr Tan either. The prosecution has filed an appeal against the acquittal, which means it could take several more months before the case concludes.
“I had no mood to do anything. I couldn’t do anything — I didn’t know when I would have to report to the police station… After the prosecution appealed, I just thought, why hasn’t (the case) finished?” he said in Mandarin.
Court cases, such as Mr Tan’s, can be long-drawn due to many legitimate reasons — including factors beyond anyone’s control such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the courts hearing only essential and urgent cases for about two months when Singapore entered the circuit breaker period.
But the fact remains that for accused persons, the impact on their lives and livelihoods can be huge — often even before they are convicted.
DOCTOR LOST HIS JOB AFTER BEING CHARGED
For another accused person, molestation charges cost him his job at a Kallang clinic.
General practitioner Lui Weng Sun, 48, was acquitted last month of molesting a female patient in 2017 after a judge found several aspects of her evidence to be inconsistent and unconvincing.
Dr Lui had worked at the Northeast Medical Group clinic, located along Jalan Tiga off Old Airport Road, for several years. During his trial, he testified that he was asked to leave by the other owners “to preserve their reputation” after he was arrested and charged.
He then had to split his time between another clinic and working as a locum (stand-in doctor).
On the day he was acquitted, he looked visibly relieved in court, with his wife crying after the verdict was read out. His defence counsel said Dr Liu was “happy and relieved” as the matter had been “hanging over his head for nearly three-and-a-half years”.
ACCUSED PERSONS FACE UNCERTAINTY, STRESS
While the law declares that one is innocent until found guilty, accused persons often find the presumption of guilt hanging like a Sword of Damocles over their heads even before they are convicted.
Once court proceedings start, they risk being fired from their jobs or having to suffer the embarrassment of having their cases being reported in the media, said lawyers and human resource experts.
In fact, some end up suffering “so much stress and anxiety that they develop psychiatric issues”, requiring counselling and medication, said Mr Kalidass Murugaiyan and Mr Chua Hock Lu from Kalidass Law Corporation in an email response.
They added: “The stress suffered can be extraordinary… (one of Mr Kalidass’ clients) passed away shortly after court proceedings began.
"Some of our clients, especially those suffering from psychiatric issues, are particularly sensitive to any media coverage. In some cases, it reportedly resulted in social repercussions as their friends and acquaintances started to regard them negatively."
Those who cannot afford bail or are not offered bail will be remanded, which means leaving their family to fend for themselves, the lawyers noted.
They said: “This can range anywhere from leaving behind a newborn to be raised by a single parent, to having to leave an elderly parent at a nursing home.”
Mr George said that some of his clients who run their own businesses are cut off by banks, even if their alleged offences are not financial-related. He then has to write to the banks to appeal to them to offer banking facilities to his clients.
Costs are also a problem, as accused persons have to continue paying for legal counsel throughout the proceedings. Employers will occasionally support their employees financially but this becomes more difficult as the case drags on, Mr George noted.
“Usually, because you don't know what the sentence is, until the date of the hearing, there will be some degree of uncertainty. They will be like: ‘Okay, do I quit (my job) so that I can serve my prison sentence?’ … Some of them had to leave their jobs and that's really sad,” Mr George added.
Mr Kalidass and Mr Chua echoed the same sentiment, saying that jobseekers face difficulty as prospective employers may not want to hire someone facing criminal charges or accommodate an employee who has to take time off to report to court.
Depending on the seniority of the defence counsel, criminal trials can typically cost an accused person a few thousand dollars or up to S$15,000 a day, while more complex trials — such as white-collar offences — could cost six figures in total. Those who choose to plead guilty will likely pay less, either by a fixed fee arrangement or by hourly billing.
Mr Nicolas Tang, managing director of Farallon Law Corporation, said that accused persons also do not receive compensation from the prosecution if they drop the charges, or if the accused is eventually acquitted. This is on top of “significant legal fees” to hire lawyers to defend them.
“We have had clients who lost income because the police had seized their client information, documents, computers and goods from their warehouses or stores while the case was ongoing,” Mr Tang added.
ACCUSED PERSONS FIRED BEFORE CONVICTION
Indeed, the possibility of having zero income can be an accused person’s biggest fear.
Whether an employer will terminate the contract of an employee who has been charged in court depends on the company’s code of conduct and values, said Ms Carmen Wee, a veteran human resources practitioner.
“I've been seeing over the years that companies have also chosen to terminate employees because they got into trouble with the law, in terms of a lawsuit or pending prosecution. So it's really up to … the company's culture, and what are the expectations or conduct of the employees, because employees represent them in the marketplace,” she added.
For example, if a male employee is accused of a serious sexual crime and frequently interacts with female colleagues, it could get “very uncomfortable” and lead to the company firing him even without a court conviction, Ms Wee said.
Mr David Ang, the director of corporate services at Human Capital Singapore, said that it also depends on an accused person’s seniority in the company. From his experience, he found that the majority of companies will “take the short way out” and ask employees to serve their notice.
“It’s quite complicated,” Mr Ang said. “A person is innocent until he is found guilty, but is that what society believes in? The moment you’ve got a doubt, you’re in trouble.”
The HR experts and lawyers said that it is not illegal for an employer to fire an employee facing charges before he or she is convicted.
Employees can file a civil lawsuit for wrongful dismissal, though Ms Wee noted that Singaporeans “tend to be careful” about this as it can be a “double whammy” if they also lose the suit. Fighting lawsuits also costs money.
Mr Tang said that criminal charges alone would not justify termination, unless the employment contract expressly allows for it.
Some companies would conduct their own internal inquiries, and if these establish misconduct has occurred, termination may be justified pursuant to the employment contract terms.
“If an employee is wrongfully dismissed and has been acquitted, the employee can sue the employer for wrongful dismissal and claim damages and loss of income as a result of such dismissal. The situation is less clear if bonuses are not paid out or if the employee is not promoted as a result of a pending criminal charge,” the lawyer added.
Mr Ang, the HR expert, suggested that accused persons who have not been convicted yet can also approach their Member of Parliament for help in getting a job, should they be let go.
In terms of recourse for those who are falsely accused or eventually acquitted, criminal charges can be pressed against the accusers for giving false statements or lying in court.
Nevertheless, accused persons can be acquitted for other reasons such as technicalities, a lack of evidence or unreliable testimony or evidence. The prosecution also has to prove all charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
For example, a 19-year-old part-timer at Cotton On accused her supervisor for sexual assault.
The judge found inconsistencies in the alleged victim's testimony and found her to be unreliable.
The judge concluded, "Accordingly I find that the prosecution has not met the standard of proving the mens rea beyond a reasonable doubt on all three charges, and the accused is accordingly acquitted and discharged."
Those interviewed believed that at the end of the day, society should abide by the principle that accused persons remain innocent until proven otherwise — even though this could be hard to put into practice at all levels.
Mr John Koh, associate director at Populus Law Corporation said: “Perhaps the general opinion may be that these accused persons got themselves into this predicament from their actions and they do not deserve help.”
The lawyer added: “If society wants to operate inclusively, for example by helping ex-convicts reintegrate into society, why are we abandoning this vulnerable group of persons who are still innocent (until proven guilty)?”