February 2nd, 2016

AWARE statement on the rights of minors in criminal investigations

We are deeply saddened by the death of Benjamin Lim. We offer our best wishes and condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.

While we cannot ultimately know why this young boy ended his life, the case raises troubling questions about the treatment of minors who come into contact with the criminal justice system. As a group that works with people who have experienced sexual assault, AWARE is concerned about the rights and welfare of any children who may be involved in sexual assault investigations, whether as complainants, suspects or witnesses.

As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Singapore has an obligation in international law to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all state dealings with any child. This includes cases where a child is alleged or accused to have committed a criminal offence – a stressful and difficult experience even for the most confident adult.

AWARE welcomes the announcement by SPF that it will review the procedure for police interviews of young people, and urges SPF to draw from international best practice in this area. The Victoria Police in Australia, for instance, can only interview under-18s if a parent, guardian or other support person is present. Moreover, the SPF should be responsible for ensuring that emotional and psychological support is available to all minors (and their carers) who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Only recently, the Law Society called for accused persons in general to have early access to counsel. This need applies with even more urgency to vulnerable individuals such as minors.

Finally, we believe it is extremely important that the police take complaints of sexual assault seriously. But any investigation must take place with due regard for the rights of suspects. Victims of sexual assault want to see fairness and accountability in the criminal process. In many cases, the perpetrators is someone previously known to them. If there is a general perception that criminal investigations may be unduly harsh or traumatic, especially for minors, this may deter victims from reporting. It is in everyone’s interest that criminal investigations respect the rights of suspects.

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