Book Review

AuthorCHOO Han Teck LLB (Hons) (National University of Singapore), LLM (Cambridge); Judge of the Supreme Court of Singapore.
Publication year2019
Citation(2019) 31 SAcLJ 367
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019

To serve the needs of the twenty-first century society, the justice system must be digital by default and design.[1]

1 Law is associated with justice as it is with order, but justice and order are sometimes incompatible and sometimes downright contradictory with each other. Law, therefore, is by necessity the scale that keeps them balanced if not in harmony. It is now evident that laws are getting more complex because of the complexities of modern life. And so the common law system, cranking its way towards modernity from about the 19th century, now finds itself somewhat slow, somewhat cumbersome, and the entire system is under strain because the practitioners of law are struggling to keep pace.

2 Rebooting Justice is a study into the flagging state of justice in the American legal system, but it holds lessons and ideas for legal systems in other common law countries. In Part I of the book the authors examine the problems currently afflicting the American legal system through a study of cases from the courts.

3 The authors referred to the story of Ray Bromgard in the chapter “The Reality of Criminal Justice for Poor Defendants” to illustrate the kind of difficulties many defendants face in the American criminal legal system.2 Bromgard was convicted of the rape of an eight-year-old girl. He spent 14 years in jail before he was exonerated in 2002 by DNA evidence. The victim twice failed to identify him with certainty, and at the time, there was no technology to type the DNA from the semen found on the victim's underwear. Bromgard was tried in Montana. He was represented by a lawyer not known for diligence, and

who was paid an annual retainer by the State no matter how many cases he did or how many hours he spent on a case. No forensic expert was engaged to challenge the claim by the Prosecution's expert that the odds that the hair found at the scene of crime was not Bromgard's, was less than 1 in 10,000. The authors note that Bromgard's case is not unique. They point to the common driving under influence (“DUI”) cases to show that even simple charges are open to myriad technical and forensic issues that no lay person can possibly cope with. “Even a routine case”, they say, “involves complicated moving parts and high stakes for the defendant's liberty versus society's safety”.3

4 The catch is that engaging a lawyer is not cheap. The fees up to trial “can run into six figures”.4 A defendant can get a court-appointed lawyer, but most middle-class defendants do not qualify for legal aid. Ye t they are willing to pay high fees “because the ramifications of a DUI conviction are so weighty”.5 From a loftier perspective, many spirited lawyers drawn by the idealism of justice and public duty volunteer to act as salaried public defenders, but, the authors sadly note, “financial pressures as well as crushing caseloads burn them out and make it hard for them to stay”.6

5 In the chapter “How We Got Here: Criminal Defense”, the authors remind us that it was only about three centuries ago when defendants were allowed representation by counsel; now, by a series of Supreme Court decisions, defendants today are entitled to be represented even in minor cases. This brings with it the problems that the authors discuss in this chapter. The American adversarial system (and most common law ones) depends on the defence counsel doing their part contesting the prosecution to ensure the accuracy and fairness of line-ups (a standard police procedure in America), police interrogations, guilty pleas and trials. To carry out his job properly, a counsel must spend time on the case and meet his client and witnesses as often as is needed, and that is usually a lot of times. As in many criminal cases, the defence lawyer is also an investigator to trace leads given by his client and engage experts to support his theory of the case.

6 The high cost of legal fees and, paradoxically, the underfunding for the public defender are serious problems. So far as...

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