Case Summaries

Ramalingam Ravinthran v Attorney-General

10 January 2012

Media Summary

Ramalingam Ravinthran v Attorney-General
Criminal Motion No 60 of 2011

Decision of the Court of Appeal (delivered by Chan Sek Keong CJ)


1     This Criminal Motion (“this Motion”) was brought by the applicant, Ramalingam Ravinthran (“the Applicant”), to argue that the prosecution leading to his conviction of two capital charges of drug trafficking was unconstitutional. The specific ground relied on was an alleged violation of the right to equality before the law under Art 12(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (1985 Rev Ed, 1999 Reprint) which occurred when the Attorney-General decided to charge the Applicant with capital offences while charging one Sundar Arujunan (“Sundar”), a person complicit in the same criminal enterprise, with non-capital offences.

2     The Applicant sought the following orders to remedy the alleged breach of Art 12(1): (a) that the capital charges against him be amended to non-capital charges; and (b) that the death sentence imposed on him by the trial judge be set aside and replaced with a suitable non-capital sentence, such that there was no difference in punitive treatment between him and Sundar.

3     This Motion raised two issues – the procedural issue of whether the Court of Appeal should hear this Motion at this stage of the proceedings, when the Applicant had already exhausted his right of appeal, and the substantive issue of whether the Applicant’s constitutional right to equality before the law under Art 12(1) had indeed been violated.

The Court of Appeal’s judgment

The procedural issue

4     With regard to the procedural issue, the Court of Appeal decided to hear this Motion even though the Applicant had already exhausted his right of appeal as the substantive issue in this Motion concerned a constitutional point – namely, the interaction between the Attorney-General’s prosecutorial discretion under Art 35(8) and the right to equality before the law under Art 12(1) – which needed to be examined in greater detail and clarified in the public interest.

The substantive issue

5     With regard to the substantive issue, the Court of Appeal held that in view of the co-equal status of the judicial power set out in Art 93 and the prosecutorial power set out in Art 35(8), the separation of powers doctrine entailed that the courts should not interfere with the exercise of the prosecutorial discretion unless it had been exercised unlawfully. In this regard, given the Attorney-General’s high office, the courts should proceed on the basis that the Attorney-General’s prosecutorial decisions were lawful until they were shown to be otherwise.

6     The Court of Appeal, however, also emphasised that the exercise of the prosecutorial discretion was subject to legal limits. An inherent limitation was that the prosecutorial power could be used only for the purpose for which it was granted (namely, to enforce the criminal law for the greater good of society), and not for any extraneous purpose. In exercising his prosecutorial discretion, the Attorney-General must not act arbitrarily. In the context of Art 12(1), this meant that the Attorney-General must give his unbiased consideration to every offender and must not take into account any irrelevant consideration.

7     The Court of Appeal further held that in cases where several offenders were involved in the same criminal enterprise, Art 12(1) entailed that the Attorney-General must compare and treat like with like, and must not unlawfully discriminate against one offender as compared to another. In this regard, the factors which could justify differentiating between the charges against different offenders involved in the same criminal enterprise included the moral blameworthiness of the particular offender concerned, the gravity of the harm caused to the public welfare by his criminal activity, whether there was sufficient evidence against him and whether he was willing to testify against his co-offenders.

8     The Court of Appeal pointed out that differentiation between the charges against different offenders involved in the same criminal enterprise did not in itself, without more, raise an inference of breach of Art 12(1). It was for the offender who complained of a breach of Art 12(1) to establish a prima facie case of such breach. However, once the offender discharged this burden, the Prosecution would have to justify its prosecutorial decision to the court; in this regard, the Prosecution could not merely rely on its discretion under Art 35(8) as a justification.

9     Applying the aforesaid principles to the facts of the present case, the Court of Appeal dismissed this Motion as: (a) the Applicant had not produced any evidence to prove a prima facie case of breach of Art 12(1); and (b) in any event, the evidence on record was insufficient to breach the presumption of constitutionality vis-à-vis the Attorney-General’s decision to prosecute the Applicant for capital offences rather than for non-capital offences (as in Sundar’s case). In the court’s view, the evidence did not support the Applicant’s contention that he was not instrumental in the commission of the criminal enterprise in this case and that Sundar was more culpable than him.

This summary is provided to assist in the understanding of the Court’s judgment. It is not intended to be a substitute for the reasons of the Court.