A Conversation with Goh Cia Yee (Part 1: A Career in Criminal law)

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

Goh Cia Yee is a Legal Associate at Messrs Sivananthan, Advocates and Solicitors a boutique criminal litigation firm in Petaling Jaya. A graduate of the University of Nottingham, he is a former Human Rights and Activism Officer of ASASI, KPUM’s human rights arm. Cia Yee writes regularly about current issues in his blog, which you can find here.

In this first article of a two-part series, Cia Yee offers insight to those interested in a career at the criminal Bar, and the job scope of a Malaysian criminal defence lawyer. Part 2 can be found HERE.

1. What motivated you to enter criminal practice?

There are a number of law students either in their final year or at the tail end of their professional training course reading this that are finding themselves at the middle of the crossroads, pondering deeply about the path they should choose. Maybe it would comfort you to know that we have all been in that position before. It will probably be a daunting moment when you stare along the two or three differing paths that split from the road that you are currently on, trying to figure out the best route to take.

Some of you will ask professional questions, such as: How much will my pay be? Which area of law am I passionate about? Would I prefer a small firm, large firm or medium-sized firm? Litigation, conveyancing or corporate? Some of you will ask personal questions instead, such as: Should I follow my friends? Should I move away from home? Should I do something I love?

When I made the choice to dive headfirst into criminal litigation, I did not have all the answers, nor could I pretend to have a complete and comprehensive understanding of criminal practice. Ironically, I found that the information needed to make that choice could only be gained after years of experience as a criminal practitioner.

As a student who did my degree and professional training course in the United Kingdom for 4 years, there is an unspoken pressure to perform exceedingly well upon returning to Malaysia due to all that money and time that was spent whilst in the UK. It is from that of point of view that I can relate to the decisions of my peers to enter into what many of them deemed to be more lucrative areas of the profession.

Criminal litigation was not seen as one of those areas. While there were career conventions for Malaysian law students in the United Kingdom, there would be no booth for criminal lawyers, no infographics, and no one to share what the experience was like being a criminal advocate. If you studied in the UK and you told your Malaysian friends that you wanted to be a criminal lawyer, your determination would be questioned day in and day out.

One of my motivations to enter criminal practice was to change this perception and help convince people that criminal litigation is a viable career path that one can consider pursuing. My affinity for human rights also played a huge factor in my decision to enter criminal practice. I was involved in a number of minor human rights campaigns during my time as a student and I knew that if I were to simply follow a conventional legal path, I would not be fulfilled. Criminal practice presented me with the opportunity to do work that is in many ways related to basic human rights. From detention without trial, capital punishment and the treatment of prisoners to the many other aspects of the criminal justice system that I believe desperately needs to be reformed, I could not help but be intrigued by this particular area of practice and what it could offer me in terms of experience and growth. The complex moral quandaries and ethical questions that came along with criminal litigation was the icing on the cake that sealed the deal for me.

Criminal litigation, just like every area of the law, has its dull moments – but it has thus far been a fulfilling and rewarding experience for me, because I know a small action on my part at work could mean the difference between a client sleeping on the floor or on a mattress in prison. In certain instances, it could even be the difference between life and death. It’s difficult to not see the value of your work when such high stakes are involved and I am thankful for the opportunity to practice criminal litigation.

2. What characteristics make a good criminal defence lawyer?

The quality of a criminal advocate should not be judged by his wins or losses nor by the amount of profits he can amass. Although a good criminal advocate is willing to go above and beyond in upholding their client’s interest, they are also respectful of their ethical duty to the court and to the public at large.

While many often picture the ideal criminal advocate in their mind as being a brave and brash person that can talk their way out of any situation and yell the word ‘objection’ across the courtroom, that description could not be further from the truth. It is not the showmanship that the advocate exhibits in court or the charm they put on that wins the trial. It is the effort done behind the curtain, during the wee hours of the morning or the late hours of the night, that secures the favourable verdict.

Personally, I believe that a good criminal advocate is a person that has not only a firm grasp in the art of advocacy but is also well versed with the facts of the case. The right questions to ask, the defence to put forward at trial, and the gaps in the prosecution’s case that must be highlighted are all aspects of the criminal trial that cannot be simply conjured or created on the spot. This is because right preparation or proper file management are essential building blocks for good advocacy, and while the ability to persuade, talk or write is useful, such ability would simply be wasted potential without these building blocks. A lack of preparation can prove to be fatal in a literal sense and as such, a good criminal advocate must study the file, understand the prosecution’s case against the Accused and note the missing evidence or contradictions that exist within the prosecution’s evidence.

A good criminal advocate is also willing to go the extra mile. This could mean the procurement of evidence such as CCTV recordings or text messages, which could be used to contradict the prosecution’s case or corroborate the Accused’s defence. A failure to exhaust all the opportunities available to disprove the Prosecution’s case is something that should be avoided, particularly in cases involving capital punishment. No lawyer should have sleepless nights thinking about the potential cost of such failure.

There will also be many instances where a criminal advocate will face unexpected obstacles, either in the form of uncooperative police officers or the sudden production of damaging evidence during the course of trial. A good criminal advocate must therefore also be resourceful and quick thinking.

I would also take this opportunity to say that gender is not a key characteristic of a good criminal advocate. Women and men are both equally capable of excelling in criminal litigation. The vast majority of lawyers in my firm are women and they are extremely good at what they do, even more so than some senior male criminal lawyers out there. Perhaps the whole notion that criminal litigation is more suitable for a man is based on the assumption that criminal litigation is dangerous and that criminal practitioners need to be hard-boiled badasses that stare at danger and don’t flinch. I am happy to dispel such myths. From my experience, criminal litigation isn’t and shouldn’t be dangerous. Clients often remain cordial and I have not come upon an instance where I felt that my life was at risk. If anything, deputy public prosecutors are more at risk than criminal defence lawyers but I do not see it becoming a deterrent for the women and men that have comfortably settled into the role. Work is work and criminal practitioners are still ordinary people with daily lives that have their own hobbies and interests. While good criminal lawyers may differ from one another in style and approach, there is one characteristic that they have in common and that is a profound respect for the rule of law and a commitment to professionalism.