A Reflection on the Experiences and Difficulties Faced by Defending Officers
While the Officer Cadet School (OCS) prepares young National Servicemen/Servicewomen Full-time (NSF) for most post-commissioning responsibilities, the mandatory 9-month long course for all prospective commissioned officers is simply unable to cover the full range of tasks that new officers are expected to be competent in. This is understandable given the considerably shorter duration of the course vis-à-vis comparable rank advancement courses in other militaries. However, this means that there are skills that new officers must learn on the job and possibly acquire without any formal training. One responsibility that young officers tend to find themselves unprepared for is the appointment as a Defending Officer.
As the name suggests, a Defending Officer’s main task is to defend a soldier ranked below him or her in a military court of law. This includes advising the defendant on whether or not to plead guilty, crafting a mitigation plea to lighten the defendant’s sentence if appropriate, as well as advising the defendant in terms of methods of redress should the sentence still prove unfavourable. While there exists no hard and fast rule, it is common practice for the higher echelons to appoint Defending Officers so long as they are not directly responsible for the defendant and do not work with him in an official capacity. This is presumably to maintain professionalism and objectivity in the course of executing one’s duties.
In an interview with former infantry officer Lieutenant (NS) Mohammad Asyraf Bin Zaidi, the Military Justice Project learned that newly commissioned officers tend to face three main challenges when they take on the role of a Defending Officer.
Lack of familiarity with the defendant and his case. Due to the arbitrariness of appointment, Defending Officers seldom know the defendant in person, making it difficult to craft a mitigation plea premised upon the character profile and past good behaviour of the defendant. Furthermore, in cases that involve unique unit practices, the Defending Officers usually lack the first-hand knowledge of the circumstances or technicalities surrounding the case. This results in the Defending Officers being heavily reliant on the accounts given by the Defendant and his commander. Depending on the veracity of the evidence provided, this might potentially weaken the strength of the mitigation plea.
Lack of familiarity with the appointment. Defending Officers are often appointed by their superiors with little or no prior training during OCS or in the unit. In the absence of appropriate reference material and guidance from more experienced officers, new officers would naturally lack the experience and knowledge to prepare for the case. Oftentimes, this forces new officers to defer to either their superiors or their peers, who may themselves be unfamiliar with the role. As a result, new officers often go through a trial by fire when the documents they prepare are rejected by senior officers during the vetting stage. Lieutenant (NS) Zaidi recalls how his mitigation plea was rejected by his superior officers due to minor technicalities which he was unaware of and later because his superiors thought his line of argument was completely wrong. This renders the entire process more inefficient and dependent on the senior officer vetting the documents. Even if appropriate resources are available, new officers who lack relevant experience often commit the “copy and paste syndrome” where they quote reference material left behind by their upper studies ad verbatim without giving them due thought. In Lieutenant (NS) Zaidi’s case, he remembers asking his Officer Commanding for a template and experiencing the dilemma of whether to merely adjust the wording of the template nominally to suit his needs.
Lack of available resources. More often than not, there is a lack of readily available reference materials or precedents at the unit level to help new officers begin their own preparations for a case. Lieutenant (NS) Zaidi recalls how the lack of proper archiving by past Defending Officers in his unit had hindered his own preparation. External sources provided little help. While Military Court of Appeal case resources are readily available for reference, General Court Martial case resources generally require more time and effort to obtain. Yet, without precedents, it becomes immensely difficult for inexperienced officers to compare the facts between cases, give appropriate advice on whether or not to plead guilty as well as the extent of mitigation to be pleaded for.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Lawyer Lawrence Goh Eng Yau explains how Defending Officers lacked experience, resources and assistance which puts them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the professionally trained prosecutors they encounter in military court. However, this gap in knowledge can be bridged, says Lieutenant (NS) Zaidi. One suggestion is for senior officers to play a greater advisory role to develop new officers to serve the post. This could take the form of a mandatory basic legal training as part of the officer’s Unit Induction Programme (UIP).
In recognition of these challenges, The Military Justice Project has created a guidebook that provides relevant information to new officers. It includes: details to look out for when reading a charge sheet, ways to craft a strong mitigation plea and avenues to seek help should they encounter difficulty. This guidebook could potentially ease the learning curve for new officers and allow them to reduce errors. Fundamentally, the guidebook will elucidate the tasks expected of them. In turn, this will allow inexperienced officers to provide a more adequate defence that can hold in a military court of law. The guidebook is now pending publication.
The Military Justice Project would like to thank Lieutenant (NS) Mohammad Asyraf Bin Zaidi for his time and his contributions to this article.