Interview with Ms Charlene Tay, DPP
This interview from 2016 has been re-posted from the old Criminal Law Website Project website.
Life as a Public Prosecutor is often taxing and can be exhausting. Having taken on this difficult and rewarding role, Ms Charlene Tay candidly shared with us her experiences of working as a female in the profession. In addition, she gave valuable insight as to where she finds (and any aspiring Public Prosecutor could find) the motivation to persevere in this line of work.
On the practice of Criminal Law
In what ways, if at all, has your perspective on life changed after you started practising criminal law?
I have become more attuned to the plight of the under-privileged, and the mentally disordered. As a law student, I would say that I led a fairly cloistered life. I had never been exposed to the underbelly of society, or to the world of mentally disordered offenders.
The practise of criminal law has brought me face-to-face with such cases, and much more. I have encountered cases where a financially-strapped offender steals milk powder to feed her baby, and a schizophrenia offender who inflicts serious injuries on his family as a result of his mental condition. Such cases give me an insight into the plight of other members in society, and a greater understanding of why criminals offend.
In addition, the practice of criminal law has given me a sense of gratitude for what I have been blessed with.
How important do you think idealism is for a continuing career in criminal law? Does it help or hinder it? Has it played a big part for you personally?
Extremely important. It is all too easy to become overly cynical or pessimistic from working as a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, one is often exposed to the ugly side of human nature. One also witnesses the far-reaching consequences of a crime (and our charging decision) on the victim, the accused and their respective families.
I firmly believe that a sense of idealism is essential if one is to continue practising criminal law. As prosecutors, we have a special responsibility to uphold the integrity of the criminal justice system – we must ensure that prosecutions are conducted fairly and that convictions are safe. Also, we must hold firm to the belief in the value of our work, and the role we play in keeping Singapore safe. Without this sense of idealism, the practice of criminal law would become mere drudgery.
On Day-to-day life as a DPP
Could you describe a typical day at work?
A ‘typical day’ at work would depend very much on what I am busy with at the moment. If I am engaged in an ongoing trial, I would come into work, do a last minute check of all the documents that I require at trial, and go off to court for the day. Lunch would probably be spent poring over what transpired at trial in the morning, and assessing if any of these require follow-up before trial resumes in the afternoon. Thereafter, in the evening, I would return to the office to consolidate my questions for the next day and deal with any other issues that the judge may have directed that I follow-up on. I would also take a quick scan of my email inbox to make sure that there are no other urgent matters which require my attention. Given that the trial process is fairly demanding, I would typically put aside my non-urgent work for the duration of the trial and return to these after the conclusion of the trial.
Even where non-trial days are concerned, there is no fixed or typical format to my day. Due to my supervisory role, a good part of my day is spent in case discussions with junior prosecutors. These can range from basic issues such as how best to draft PG (plead guilty) papers, to trial strategy, sentencing positions and vetting written submissions. At the same time, a significant proportion of my time is also spent drafting my own documents, and interviewing witnesses for upcoming court cases.
Being in the AGC must involve long hours and hard work. How do you decide when to step away and take a break from it?
At the outset, I think it is important to remember that work is akin to a marathon, and not a sprint. I approach my work with consistency and diligence, but also recognise the importance of finding an outlet to relieve work stress. To me, this can take a variety of forms ranging from lunchtime gym sessions, playing with my children after work, to late-night baking in the wee hours of the morning. I also make a conscious effort to set aside time for a family holiday twice a year, so that I return to work fully refreshed.
Have you ever thought about entering private practice?
I have thought about it, but it’s not quite my cup of tea. I feel like I can make more of a difference with my work in chambers. Also, chambers provides more flexibility — it’s quite hard to do criminal work as a mainstay in practice since it’s always driven by client demand.
However, I do think the legal service provides a diverse range of options and if you’re interesting in private practice, you don’t have to be pigeonholed into being a prosecutor for the rest of your whole life. There are many people who have rotated to different roles and enjoyed it more there as well.
On life as a female DPP
Have you ever felt the need to handle certain situations differently because of your gender? How did you respond to these situations?
Not entirely. By and large, I would like to believe that it is an individual’s personality (rather than his / her gender) that dictates how he / she handles a particular situation.
That said, I recognise that gender differences do sometimes account for the different ways in which a prosecutor conducts witness interviews and assesses a witness’ credibility. For instance, a female prosecutor may be able to build better rapport with a female victim of a sexual offence. In such cases, while there is no hard and fast rule, the female prosecutor in the team would typically be the one who leads evidence from the victim in court.
A Bird’s eye view on the criminal law
As a female practitioner, are there certain trends within our criminal legal system which you are concerned about or looking into?
As a mother to three young children, I am especially concerned about the ready accessibility of the Internet to young children. Increasingly, children and adolescents are exposed to sexually explicit content on the Internet and social media. Sexual offenders have also exploited the Internet as a means of befriending underaged victims.
More should be done to ensure that our children receive proper sex education both at home and in school, and to keep the channels of communication between both parents and their children. This will hopefully help to reduce the likelihood of children falling prey to sexual predators online.
Are there any cases which are particularly emotionally draining?
Cases involving sexual offences are always more emotionally draining. It is difficult to assess the credibility of the victim especially if we have to ask them to relive their traumatic experiences. It is understandable why they would be hesitant to share. There are also cases with horrific circumstances such as accidents and homicide which will require us to look through some very graphic evidence.
What are the factors in consideration that affect how you decide to charge someone?
Things are often not so simple. Oftentimes some psychiatric issues must be taken into consideration. For example, why did the accused steal this particular thing? Was it out of greed? The considerations are often not purely legal, and it’s a very solutions-centric approach.
Even when you’re prosecuting an accused, you do feel the implications. You have to consider seriously the impact you could have someone’s life and not just in the short term — it could affect his prospects, his livelihood, his family. Prosecutors wield a lot of power in the choices they have to make and must take it very seriously. And it’s not just the accused that might be affected, but the victim might be affected as well if you do decide not to prosecute.
All in all there’s a lot to think about, and you have to see it as a big picture.
Out of all the cases that you’ve been a part of in your career (whether as a prosecutor or otherwise), which one has stuck with you the most?
In 2012, I was the co-lead prosecutor handling a case of attempted murder and aggravated rape. The victim was a foreign domestic worker (“FDW”) who had been raped by her neighbour, and who had allegedly been thrown out of her flat by her neighbour.
This case was personally significant for a number of reasons. First, it was the first High Court case in which I took on the heavy responsibility of co-lead counsel. Having only assisted in cases thus far, I now took on the primary responsibility of ensuring that the prosecution was conducted competently, and fairly. Second, I felt great sympathy for the victim, who had been sexually assaulted, and who bore both psychological and physical scars from the ordeal. As a result of having landed feet first during the fall, one of the victim’s feet had become significantly shorter than the other. The victim thus walked with a permanent limp and could no longer seek employment as a FDW. I developed a strong rapport with the victim and was able to convince her to testify in court. Third, this case threw up a number of unexpected surprises at the very last minute. Apart from having to make Kadar disclosure, I had to impeach my own prosecution witness on the stand.
On life in general
Do you have tips for law students in general?
I would advise them not to pigeonhole themselves into a certain area of law but to take a variety of courses to find out what they like. For me, I always thought I would end up doing corporate law despite taking a variety of courses. Regardless of the field that students end up in, it is important that they try their best and give their all in every project. As a lawyer, you can only add value when you take ownership and fully commit yourself to the task at hand.
Through your years of practice, have you noticed any differences in the type of law graduates entering the profession in the past and now?
For one, there never used to be any SMU graduates. Generally, younger graduates are very eager but are not always familiar with practice – things such as the life cycle of a case, beginning with the initial charging decision to the final sentencing position. For example, young lawyers may forget to place important aggravating factors into the statement of facts or may make certain concessions during trial that implicate their own cases. Sometimes, they may be unaware of issues in their own case.
What was your favourite module that you studied in school?
I can’t say that I had a favourite module as I took a variety of them and enjoyed them all. In reality, what you study in school may not have a necessary correlation to your final practice. However, if you do take a Master’s degree halfway through your professional work, it will be more likely to affect your specialisation.
Are there any particular personality traits that certain types of lawyers, such as litigators or corporate lawyers, are likely to possess?
People are likely to make certain generalisations but I think these can only be applied very broadly. For example, though people may assume that litigators are more likely to step up in court, there are some litigators who are happy to play a more secondary role by assisting their bosses. Corporate lawyers, on the other hand, are expected to be detail oriented as well as business savvy. These traits are also equally applicable to criminal lawyers. If someone is facing a hundred charges, you would want the evidence for each charge to be tabulated meticulously. Ultimately, it is whether you take pride and ownership in your work than whether you have a particular disposition that will determine whether you do well in the profession.
And just to end it off, any favourite legal shows?
I’ve been watching Making a Murderer recently, it’s quite interesting.
Written by Emmanuel Aw, June Ngian, Uma Sharma, Sun Fangda, and Yijie Zhang