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Singapore High Court upholds LASCO policy, denies death row inmates’ request for extended legal aid

Singapore High Court judge dismissed an application by 36 death row inmates challenging the LASCO policy limiting post-appeal legal assistance, citing constitutional grounds.



On 20 May, a Singapore High Court judge dismissed an application by 36 death row inmates challenging a policy that limits legal assistance after appeals are exhausted.

The inmates argued that the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO) policy infringed on their constitutional rights by not providing legal representation for post-appeal applications, which they deemed unconstitutional.

LASCO is a scheme that provides legal assistance to accused persons charged with capital offences.

Justice Dedar Singh Gill explained in his ruling, “I understand the applicants’ argument to be that the LASCO policy amounts to a ‘blanket ban’ on the assignment of LASCO counsel for post-appeal applications, which consequently affects their ability to bring post-appeal applications, thereby infringing upon their ‘access to justice and right to legal representation’.”

However, he concluded that the application had “no reasonable cause of action” and upheld the distinction between rights granted during trial and appeals and those applicable post-appeal.

He elaborated that post-appeal reviews are discretionary and designed to prevent miscarriages of justice in rare instances involving new evidence or legal interpretations.

The central legal argument from the inmates was based on Article 9(3) of the Constitution, which they claimed entitled them to continued legal representation.

Justice Gill refuted this, stating, “Nowhere in the text of Article 9(3) does it state that there is a right to be provided counsel or legal aid. The right to counsel in Article 9(3) cannot be interpreted as a right to be provided with counsel, much less counsel that is provided at no cost.”

Additionally, Justice Gill commented on the nature of LASCO’s operational guidelines, saying, “The guidelines also state that in the case of appeals or other applications before the Court of Appeal, the LASCO counsel’s assignment will ‘cease immediately upon … the pronouncement of the verdict disposing of the appeal or application’.”

Addressing the lack of free legal aid at the post-appeal stage, Justice Gill remarked, “A person is not deprived of access to justice or access to the courts just because he is not provided with free legal representation.”

Justice Gill added, “I am unable to see how the non-provision of LASCO counsel for post-appeal applications deprives one of his right to life or personal liberty. The applicants have been convicted of their individual offences after having the merits of their case (in relation to those offences) heard at both the trial and appellate stages.”

“It is on the basis of that conviction that capital punishment has been imposed upon them. They have not been sentenced to capital punishment on the basis of the LASCO policy. It thus cannot be seriously contended that the LASCO policy has deprived them of their right to life and personal liberty.”

He also expressed his view that the LASCO policy does not deprive the applicants of the alleged right of access to justice.

“A person is not deprived of access to justice or access to the courts just because he is not provided with free legal representation. Such a person still retains his right to obtain the representation of legal counsel on his own accord.”

During the hearing on 9 May 2024, the death row inmates sought an extension of four to five weeks to file their written submissions for case SUM 1124, citing the initial two-week deadline set on 23 April 2024 as insufficient.

They attributed the need for more time to their status as “jailhouse litigants,” facing challenges in preparing their case without external assistance.

However, the judge denied the extension, pointing out that the inmates had previously managed to submit extensive documentation within similarly tight deadlines for related cases.

Consequently, Justice Gill concluded that they should have been prepared to meet the original deadline, given their familiarity with the legal issues involved.

Human rights lawyer M Ravi criticized the ruling, arguing it contravenes international standards for a fair trial by denying free legal representation at crucial stages of legal proceedings for those who cannot afford it.

Speaking to Gutzy, Mr Ravi stated, “The High Court’s ruling is a clear breach of the right to a fair trial guaranteed to all defendants under international human rights law, which includes the right to free legal representation at all stages of legal proceedings if the defendant is unable to afford a lawyer.”

He also shared a poignant case in which he was involved: “I wish to highlight the case of Gobi Avedian, which I took up at the eleventh hour on a pro bono basis. His death sentence was set aside by a Court of Appeal of five judges presided over by the Chief Justice who acknowledged they made a judicial error and set aside the death sentence of Gobi. This case itself cries for reform.”

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Most if not all SG Judiciary decisions, activities are akin to Enid Blyton’s – not famous 5, but famous Dozens.