Criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan is the Head of the Criminal Department at Quahe Woo & Palmer LLC. He graduated in 2004 from the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. He had the privilege of being mentored by the storied Subhas Anandan for more than 10 years, and, consequently, has been involved in close to 1,000 criminal cases since starting practice. Sunil is currently the President of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore. He is also a volunteer lawyer with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). Currently, Sunil is one of 3 criminal lawyers assisting in the Enhanced Guidance for Plea Scheme in the State Courts. For his efforts, Sunil was awarded one of the two Subordinate Courts’ Volunteer of the Year (Advocate and Solicitor category) awards in 2010. He is also on the panel of Lead Counsel under the Supreme Court’s Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences. Sunil hopes to change the world and hopes his efforts at improving our criminal justice system are just starting.
This Letter is addressed to himself in the year 2000, when he was just about to enter law school.
To the Sunil of the year 2000,
Get out now if you can. The practice of law will disappoint you.
In law school, you will focus more on extra-curricular activities than on classes. Alcohol, mahjong, and bridge more than research papers. Friends more than books. The Sunil of 2017 beseeches you to stay that course.
In law school, International Legal Process will be the toughest course you handle, but it will be the one which prepares you most for practice. You will be terrible and will need to rely on good friends to get through the course. The moot you will be fortunately selected for in 2004 will be an even bigger struggle. You will feel like a passenger in that team of giants, but the experience will make you better. Frankly, you will embarrass yourself somewhat in the practice session in the moot court, but those lessons will stay with you and mould you. On reflection, please make as many mistakes as you can in law school, when the outcomes do not truly matter.
In law school, the best thing you will do is helm Rag and Flag in 2001. You will gather an excellent team of individuals more talented than you and you will make a difference. Your seniors pulled the faculty out of the float building component; instead, the cohort did community service – a move that seems a no-brainer even now. Your juniors and batch mates will do a stellar job in Chao Yang Special School at Newton. Walls will be painted, murals will be done up, the basketball court will be repaired and the kids will all be brought to the Zoo. The kids will laugh and interact with the law students and you will hope that this group of law students will go on to do great things (many already are). The presentation portion will go off like a charm and the law school will raise a fair bit of money in 2001. This will imbue you with the drive to do pro bono work which, thankfully, remains today.
Unfortunately, pro bono work will frustrate you as well. You will come across absolute ingrates when you do your pro bono work. You will tell yourself it is for good karma but sometimes you just cannot protect people from themselves.
I won’t lie to you. When you leave law school, the 2-2 will sting for a while. It will be of no consequence. Even so, the collective disappointment of practice will outweigh the joys you feel, and you will unfortunately keep on asking yourself if you are doing the right thing.
When you leave law school, you will realise that being a criminal lawyer is not what you imagined it to be. In one of your first cases, you will help your uncle defend the acquittal of a man accused of having stolen money. The evidence against him is premised on circumstantial evidence. There is hardly any objective evidence tying him to the crime. Yet the accused said that the police told him that his fingerprints were found on the dollar notes stolen while recording statements from him. You will look through the record of proceedings and it will dawn on you that there is no such fingerprint evidence. This is of little consequence as the statements were not positive, but your naïve self will still struggle to accept that the police may have lied. You ask your uncle about this and, on reflection, his reaction was perhaps one of amusement. This is the case that will start slowly opening your eyes to the darker aspects of criminal law. Your older self will remind you that maybe it was the accused who lied then. But who really knows? People from all sides lie. It is a dirty game.
You will also have a lousy day in Court in late 2016. It will not be as bad as the day Hillary Clinton will have, and your faith in the law will be shaken for the umpteenth time. You will face a Judicial Officer (JO) who recognises that your client’s culpability is lower than the accused persons in the precedent cases. Even after questioning the Prosecution, the JO will give your client a similar custodial sentence, for reasons of general deterrence. Take comfort in the fact that getting pissed off means you still believe in fighting the good fight. And you must remember that even if you disagree with judges, you must always conduct yourself with equanimity.
You will have more of these bad days, when you think that the judges got things wrong. The one that marks you early on is the case of Took Leng How, when you thought that there was enough doubt to avoid the death penalty. These bad days will shake you. But you must retain the will to keep on fighting.
The thirst to make change happen will keep you in the law. You will work tirelessly with a number of committees, like the Enhanced Guidance for Plea Scheme in the State Courts, in the hope of improving the criminal justice system in Singapore. You will feel pride in being involved in the Appropriate Adult scheme (for youthful offenders and special needs offenders) from the planning stages and the CLAS Steering Committee. And while you remain disappointed in a number of things, there will be big, systemic changes to cheer by 2017. There is a significantly greater level of discovery in criminal cases, the Government will start funding criminal legal aid, and Section 300(c)’s punishment is no longer mandatory death. There is hope for life imprisonment in place of death.
Do not be content with this pace of change. There is still scope for much more. Push for improvements in the way offenders with mental health conditions are treated by the system. Consider victim-offender mediation. Ponder if our drug laws are too tough such that they become counter-productive. Keep on questioning if the best methods are adopted for youthful offenders.
Remember that you will not be favoured by everyone when you speak up for change (and that is partly because of your sometimes brash manner). Remind yourself that the most persuasive arguments are made not with bluster but with reasonableness – and do not be afraid if you are acting in good faith. In the meantime, keep on keeping on with hope in your heart.