Interview with Mr Sunil Sundheesan
This interview from 2015 has been re-posted from the old Criminal Law Website Project website.
Interview with Mr Sunil Sudheesan
Shortly after the “Criminal Law Art of Giving” dialogue, which centered on the access of justice in Singapore, it was our privilege to interview one of our esteemed panelists, Mr Sunil Sudheesan (Acting President, Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore), who shared his insights on pro bono and his experience as a criminal lawyer.
On mandatory pro bono for lawyers and students
Mr Sunil expressed that he was not very inclined towards the idea of making pro bono mandatory for both groups. In his view, mandatory pro bono is not practical if there is incongruence with the type of resources and the help the public required, each lawyer should use their expertise in their pro bono work. He was very forthcoming with his ideas and suggested, “corporate lawyers should do corporate law while criminal lawyers should stick to criminal law”. The latter can use their skills for CLAS (Criminal Legal Aid Scheme), instead of drafting a contract for a charity. Building on the point of practicality, a person who volunteers would provide a better quality of advice and be more willing to put in his best, whereas mandated lawyers are more likely to do pro bono for the sake of going through the motion. Putting it simply, mandatory pro bono would cheapen the good intentions of volunteers. Furthermore, it will be even more difficult to differentiate between those who perform purely out of obligation from someone who is truly passionate about pro bono. Upon being asked whether increasing the number of practicing lawyers, and in turn reducing legal fees, would be a more sustainable method in increasing access to justice, Mr Sunil was very candid with his answer unapologetically disagreeing with the suggestion. He has instead proposed the usage of economic principles to regulate behavior, such as incentives and penalties.
He too voiced his concerns on the potential countervailing effect of mandatory pro bono for students. Mr Sunil provided a personal anecdote of his time as a Rag and Flag chair in 2001, where the “rebellious” law school then refused to build a float and opted instead to do community service as their senior batch had done. The community service saw to a healthy response rate from the freshmen batch. His story illustrates the unexpected effectiveness of peer pressure and he even hypothesized that if Flag was indeed mandatory, his peers might have reacted more negatively. To him, people cannot be forced to do “good” and there will always be those attempting to get around the pro bono scheme. While it can encourage people to do things with a good motive, he sees the scheme as a practical issue in which its intention may backfire. He later readily summarized the opposing views on this, acknowledging the stance where the ends justify the means. The justification of mandatory pro bono can be grounded in the overall need to increase the amount of pro bono work done to match the current needs in society. Mr Sunil then finally returned to his point that the public good may however be damaged by someone who is not focused on the cause thereby illustrating the tensions involved in the policy making in this area.
On whether law students should be actively encouraged to do criminal law
Naturally, law students would be encouraged by the romanticism of criminal law, where one is heroically “fighting for the underdog”. Yet when it comes to the nuts and bolts of practice, one would observe people moving away from criminal law as a result of the lack of paying work. He did not see a supply side issue but rather an insufficient paying demand to attract talent, which remains the systemic issue. He challenged us to consider the frequency of cases in where more the affluent commit crimes. On top of that, the affluent are still inclined towards hiring senior counsels who may have a different way of handling criminal trials. This is as evinced in the recent City Harvest Church case for criminal breach of trust. Mr Sunil expressed his opinion that crime is often driven by economic reasons and may be reflective of deep-seated social issues. Venturing beyond the scope of law, he discussed the need for efforts to solve crime at the root level, passionately breaking down the factors (e.g economic motivations) one could consider in understanding and addressing crime. Particularly, Mr Sunil highlighted the fact that Singapore has been struggling with the drug problem for years. The effectiveness of the current punishments i.e death penalty or jail sentencing remains to be addressed.
On special attributes required of a criminal lawyer
Criminal law requires the litigator to be very sharp, breaking down everything to an elemental level. This applies to corporate lawyers as well, who need the ability to see the bigger picture and fix a contractual problem. Yet the question of sustainability also arises. He gave the example of environmental law which may not be a commercially viable area of practice. In choosing the right field, practicality has to drive a person as well.
Further, Mr Sunil mentioned that one should also have drive, passion in fighting for the underdog and the keen desire to address unfairness. Bestowing us with even more personal anecdotes, he explained the difficulties faced in reaching a just outcome for a criminal case and in the interactions he has had with the courts, much to our interest. He also cites his privileged position as Mr Subhas Anadan’s nephew in gaining the experience and role as acting president of ACLS to better help clients.
Mr Sunil’s passion for his work is undisputed, traits which undeniably make him one of the best criminal lawyers in Singapore. NUS CJC would like to thank Mr Sunil Sundheesan for his time and meaningful insights.
Interview by Teresa Pereira, Kenji Lee and Erica Phoon