CC Tan Award Acceptance Speech — Peter Cuthbert Low
Thank you – Ms Kuah Boon Theng – for your kind words.
Ladies and Gentlemen, and Fellow Members of the Law Society
- When I set up a two-lawyer partnership, many years ago, I did not expect to be called “A Friend of the Underdog”.
- Instead, I had thought that I would simply be known as the defender of petty thieves, crooks, shoplifters and the occasional hopeless LASCO-assigned cases.
- But my professional career has taken a few surprising turns. Along the way, I have had to handle other types of cases including those with unpopular causes.
- And so, from time to time, people asked me why I took on such cases.
- The answer is that I believe that people should not be denied Access to Counsel, especially where their causes are unpopular.
- I cite three cases where Access to Counsel was a problem.
- The first case concerned Chng Suan Tze where my client, Chng Suan Tze and six other detainees challenged their ISA detention in the High Court.
- Access to Counsel became an issue, in the case, because, at the end of the first day’s hearing, our Lead Counsel, ex Law Society president Francis Seow was arrested – when he went to the ISD to interview his clients, Teo Soh Lung and my former partner.
- The rest of the lawyers – like me – were young lawyers. And we were in disarray.
- Thereupon, the search for a local senior lawyer to replace Francis Seow ensued but the search proved fruitless. Many senior lawyers would not touch the cases with a 10-foot pole for various reasons. The Law Society also could not help find a replacement Lead Counsel.
- I was disappointed. Because, besides my former partner, I knew one of the other ISA detainees: She was my law classmate who was arrested outside our office.
- Thankfully, in those days, the Law on admission of QCs was more liberal.
The Law Gazette Article
- Unhappy with my experience of the Chng Suan Tze case, one of my co-counsel and I, authored an article on Access to Counsel in which we quoted the following words of Lord Hailsham:
“… no one should be so poor, no one so wicked, … no one so unpopular … that he cannot find … in his hour of need, a … lawyer …
WITHOUT THE ADVOCATE … there can be no impartial justice … “
Tang Liang Hong
- Coincidentally, soon after, Tang Liang Hong – a Workers’ Party election candidate – was sued for defamation by a soccer-team worth of cabinet ministers and PAP MPs.
- Tang Liang Hong complained to the media that he had approached more than a dozen senior lawyers but they turned him away because they were afraid to act for him against senior government figures – except for the late JB Jeyaretnam.
- Unfortunately, JBJ had to discharge himself from Tan Liang Hong’s multiple defamation cases. Because, in arguing an interlocutory application of Tang Liang Hong, not only was the application dismissed :
- JBJ was ordered to show cause why he should not pay costs; and
- JBJ was referred to the Law Society for disciplinary action.
- Thereafter, the Law Society was also approached for a replacement Lead Counsel. But no replacement counsel could be found.
- And so, having opened our big mouths, my co-author and I were constrained to take over conduct of Tang Liang Hong’s defence.
- Interestingly, when JBJ appealed, our Court of Appeal had something to say about Access to Counsel. The CA, quoting an English case, said:
“It is easier, pleasanter and more advantageous professionally for barristers to advise, represent or defend those who are decent and reasonable and likely to succeed in their action or their defence than those who are unpleasant, unreasonable, disreputable, and have an apparently hopeless case.
Yet it would be tragic – if our legal system came to provide no reputable defenders, representatives or advisers – for the latter.”
- The CA must have read Tang Liang Hong’s press comments.
- Unfortunately, after Tang Liang Hong’s case, Access to Counsel continued to be a problem – when a publication of my client Dow Jones was sued for defamation by the late SM Lee and PM Lee.
- Coming from a small firm, I was briefed as the Instructing Solicitor and was instructed to secure the services of a senior lawyer from a better-resourced firm.
- The plaintiffs had engaged the best litigation team in town. No guesses which firm the team came from.
- I contacted many senior lawyers.
- I tried getting a QC admitted.
- All my efforts were in vain.
- Once more, I became the default lawyer in a politically-charged case.
- But I was greatly inspired, I was energised and I took the following words of JA Tay Yong Kwang seriously when he dismissed my QC application. I quote
“On a lighter note, should Mr Peter … Low feel … that he would be embroiled in a battle of ‘David-and-Goliath’ proportions, perhaps he could take comfort in the fact that the little shepherd boy armed with only a sling and stones emerged the victor against the gigantic seasoned soldier wielding a shield, a sword and a spear.”
- And so, with such an uplifting thought, I fearlessly marched into the arena of legal combat in the Court of Appeal, armed only with my submissions and a few bundle of authorities – to argue my case.
- Unfortunately, whereas David won his battle against Goliath, Peter Low lost to … Mr Davinder Singh SC.
- Be that as it may, I am heartened to sense that, today, 30 years after the Chng Suan Tze case, there are more of us who are prepared to handle unpopular and often politically-charged cases.
- It is my fervent hope this trend will continue in the years to come.
- Lastly, I would not be here without the blessings and guidance from God, and the love and support of my long-suffering wife and family.
- My heartfelt thanks also goes out to my friends, colleagues and former colleagues who have allowed me to pursue my convictions even when the going was tough.
- With that, Mr Gregory Vijayendran – and your Council members – thank you for this Award.
- Coming from my peers, this Award means a lot to me.
- Thank you, Everybody.