SINGAPORE — The pro-bono lawyer who managed to get a full acquittal for a prominent businessman’s former maid accused of stealing from his family – in charges which he described as “trumped up” at trial – has directed credit for her acquittal to non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Anil Balchandani said such organisations “toil day and night” to help foreign workers in distress, and paid particular tribute to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, or HOME, which had first approached him to represent Parti Liyani in late 2017.
Since December 2016, when she was arrested, Parti has been sheltered by HOME, which also found a bailor for her. The Indonesian had been sentenced in March last year by a district court to more than two years’ jail on four counts of theft, but was last week acquitted on all charges by the High Court.
In a video interview with HOME, posted on the NGO’s website on Wednesday (9 September), Anil said, “Lawyers like myself who work on pro-bono matters do some work, but the real work is done by a lot of these NGOs.”
He added, “That’s the real...back-breaking activity – meeting with (migrant workers) every week, every month, giving them that...hope that something good can happen.”
Anil had been praised by High Court judge Chan Seng Onn in the concluding paragraph of his 100-page written judgment on the case.
Among other things, Justice Chan said of the lawyer, “His written submissions were detailed and well-footnoted; his arguments were persuasive; he explored carefully every aspect of the prosecution’s case and scrutinised the voluminous evidence in the transcripts in order to mount his client’s defence both at the trial and the appeal with clarity; he analysed the grounds of decision of the trial judge in great detail to submit on areas where the trial judge had erred in her findings; he handled all these matters single-handedly and had shown much dedication in his pro-bono work for this case.”
In a statement posted on its website after the acquittal, Anil’s firm Red Lion Circle, of which he is managing proprietor, said, “The bulk of the work was done, and continues to be done by non-government organisations, who toil day and night, weekday and weekend, to console, advance and assist foreign domestic workers, foreign workers and others who are in distress.
“There are many more Parti Liyanis who languish in shelters and our prisons whose attention we, as a nation, should turn to. HOME deserves more, or almost all the credit regarding Parti Liyani’s acquittal.”
In his video interview with HOME, Anil explained some challenges he faced with the case. The interview was conducted last month after the appeal hearings had concluded, but before the acquittal verdict was delivered.
‘We were up against tenacious prosecutors, a prominent family’
Parti was initially accused of stealing a total of 144 items worth $50,000 from former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, his son Karl, daughter Cheng May and Karl’s wife Heather.
She was found guilty by District Judge Olivia Low, who amended the value of stolen items to $34,000, after a 20-day trial, which took place between April 2018 and January last year.
Anil told HOME, “It was a very, very difficult trial, not just because we knew it was going to last 10 months. It was a very difficult and long-drawn trial because of the sheer number of items that we had to deal with.
“And I didn’t have any assistants, so I had to rely on a well-managed, or well-accounted for, set of documents, (and) understand Parti’s instructions clearly. We were up against a very tenacious set of (three) prosecutors. We were also up against a very prominent family,” he added.
The lawyer noted that the appeal was also long, with hearings spanning three days in total, and which took place in November last year, February and August.
Anil said each allegedly misappropriated item had to be explained, “and we had to basically convince a (High Court) judge that, look, why would someone steal junk?”
Indeed, Justice Chan found that many of the allegedly stolen items were old and displayed “some form of dysfunctionality”. Said the judge, “It is rather unusual, to say the least, for Parti to mostly steal items that were ostensibly spoilt, broken or lacking in value to their alleged owners.”
The duration of the criminal trial was, however, not the longest for Anil, a lawyer of eight years who graduated with a post-graduate law degree from the Singapore Management University in 2012; he was previously a professional engineer for eight years, having done his undergraduate studies in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
In 2017, Anil secured an acquittal for SMRT bus driver Zhang Kun, a Chinese national, who was accused of speeding and losing control of bus service 700A at a sharp bend at the slip road of Bukit Timah Expressway towards Dairy Farm Road. One passenger died while another was injured. Zhang’s trial on two charges of causing death and endangering life by a rash act took place over 26 days, and spanned over three years.
An injustice if foreign workers plead guilty out of convenience
In his HOME interview, Anil also spoke about the need to better protect foreign workers. As of December last year, there were over 1.42 million foreigners working here, according to data from the manpower ministry. Of these, 261,900 were domestic workers and 341,400 were in construction.
“I always had this impression that when you have about a million people here who are foreign domestic workers and foreign workers without proper representation – I’m talking about at the political level – you are going to run into problems down the line...with our justice system, where foreign domestic workers or foreign workers just don’t know what they’re up against; they don’t know who to turn to,” he said.
He pointed out that such workers may feel that it’s convenient to apologise and plead guilty to an alleged wrongdoing, so that they can be sent home, “which is what they really want after a little while of being accused and interrogated”. But this is an injustice, said the lawyer.
“I think as we move forward, and as we get a little more advanced as a nation, we need to realise that the system as we envisioned it doesn’t cater for these unrepresented folks – and I’m talking about politically unrepresented,” said Anil.
“And the reason why I say that is, with proper representation, these issues are naturally heard, but without this representation you don’t know, until something terrible happens.”
The HOME interview can be viewed here.
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