Law Society has ‘no views’ on freedoms of speech and assembly

The president of the Law Society of Singapore (LSS) wrote that the Society “expressed no views” on the matter of the Government prosecuting Singaporeans for exercising their right to peaceful protests. The group of activists who have been charged with taking part in an assembly and a procession without permit has written to the Law Society calling on it to weigh in on the matter. (See letter here)

In his reply to the activists, Mr Michael Hwang SC gave the view that the LSS did not want to get involved in the fight for the Constitutional rights of the people of Singapore.

The Singapore Democrats find it hard to understand what the LSS means by having no views on the matter. This is especially so in light of the fact that the stated objective of the Society is “protecting and assisting the public in Singapore in all matters relating to the law.”

The rights of citizens in this country are encoded in law. The Government is either right or wrong in enforcing laws that restrict freedom of assembly and speech. Expressing no views on the matter is neither here nor there. How does the Society protect the public when it takes such a stance?

In addition Mr Hwang had called on lawyers to help Singaporeans know their rights by helping them take on cases against the Government especially those involving civil liberties. The Society also indicated that it wants to look into the issue of human rights and study how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to Singapore.

Earlier this year the organisation set up the Public and International Law Committee (PILC) to study the issue of human rights. This may be a good opportunity for the PILC to study the Society’s response to a real-life situation involving human rights in Singapore.

In light of the public significance of the matter, we reproduce Mr Hwang’s letter below:

22 July 2008

Mr Chia Ti Lik
c/o 24 Peck Seah Street
#05-09/11 Nehsons Building
Singapore 079314

Dear Ti Lik,

Thank you for your letter of 16 July 2008.

The thrust of your letter seems to be as follows:

a. You and your colleagues are charged with participating in an assembly and procession without permit.

b. You and your colleagues believe that it is your right as citizens to demonstrate in this way, as the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, which are fundamental liberites, are quaranteed by our constitution.

c. The Law Society, as the body that represents the defenders of justice, must assist citiznes who are prosecuted by the STate for exercising their fundamental liberties.

d. You would like the Law Society to arrange legal representation for you and your colleagues on a pro-bono basis.

The Council has discussed your letter, and our response is as follow:

1. The Society expressed no views on the specific complaints that you and your colleagues have against the Government.

2. The Society is concerned that all citizens should have access to legal representation, particularly in criminal cases.

3. If citizens cannot afford the regular fees of lawyers in private pratice, the Society has in place the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). Those who are able to satisfy the means test may be granted legal aid by CLAS provided the offence are covered by the CLAS Scheme. Please see the attachment as to the range of offences covered by the CLAS Scheme and means test threshold. From telephone conversations between two of your coleagues and our CLAS officers Ms Shanaaz Banu, we understand that the Charges have been brought under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance Act (Cap. 184) and therefore do come within the offences to which the CLAS Scheme applies.

4. If you and your colleagues believe that that qualify under the CLAS Scheme, they may make application to our office at the Subordinate Courts, Level 5 (room beside Subordinate Court No. 6), 1 Havelock Square, Singapore 059724.

This exchange of correspondence will be posted on the Law Society’s website.

Your sincerely,
Michael Hwang, SC
The Law Society of Singapore