Singapore’s High Court has rejected the application of a senior U.K. barrister to act as defense counsel in a high-profile church embezzlement case.

Jonathan Caplan QC had sought to represent Chew Eng Han, the former fund manager for the City Harvest Church, a non-denominational megachurch that had attracted one of Singapore’s largest Christian congregations. Last June, Chew and five other church officials, including founding pastor Kong Hee, were charged with misappropriating almost $20 million and falsifying accounts to cover it up. The accused have yet to enter a plea in the case.
The case attracted widespread public and media attention in Singapore, but, in an April 8 decision, Justice V. K. Rajah ruled that the case’s high profile did not constitute a “special reason” sufficient to admit a foreign counsel in a criminal proceeding.
“Interest manifested by the public in a matter is not equivalent to a legal matter of public interest arising,” the judge wrote in a 50-page opinion.
Rajah further found that the facts of the case, which involves alleged sham transactions designed to conceal acts of embezzlement, were not so complex as to be “beyond the management of any competent local counsel.”
Chew, who is being represented by solicitor Pateloo Ashokan of KhattarWong, had argued that he had already tried several prominent Singapore barristers, including Davinder Singh SC of Drew & Napier, Lok Vi Ming SC of Rodyk & Davidson, and Francis Xavier SC of Rajah & Tann, but all had turned him down due to conflicts of interest or because they were too busy.
But the judge said Chew had barely scratched the surface in seeking local counsel. He said the pool of capable counsel did not only include those holding Singapore’s Senior Counsel designation.
“From my experience, both at Bar and through my interaction with counsel on the Bench, I can state with confidence that there remains available in several areas of practice (including commercial and criminal law) a number of highly able practicing counsel who are not Senior Counsel,” wrote Rajah, a former SC himself and onetime managing partner of Rajah & Tann.
Though Singapore has taken steps in recent years to make it easier for foreign litigators to practice there, the judge noted that the government has only done so with regard to commercial cases. On the criminal side, there has been some effort to restrict the use of foreign lawyers.
Caplan is a member of 5 Paper Buildings chambers in London.
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