Ensuring Access to Justice for All: HASI in Singapore
I first came to hear about the Hayes Ability Screening Index (“HASI”) project in a series of fortuitous events. It was April 2012 and a criminal lawyer I was interning with invited me to lunch with a couple of his kakiswhom we had bumped into at People’s Park Complex. Our lunch companions happened to be directors at the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office and over steaming baskets of dim sum, I was quickly introduced to the myriad of initiatives that they were currently undertaking.
Newly made aware of my undergraduate training in psychology and my desire to engage in meaningful volunteer work, the HASI project was then dangled in front of me like the proverbial carrot on a stick. Bribery was absolutely unnecessary, however; the project sold itself and you will soon come to see why.
The number of recorded instances of people with intellectual disabilities (“ID”) has been on the rise. Whether this means more people are being born with or diagnosed with an intellectual disability is a debate for another time. The important thing to note is how society has adapted to this rising statistic. With regards to the criminal justice system, studies have shown that persons with intellectual and other learning disabilities are generally more likely to (i) confess to crimes which they did not commit; (ii) admit to greater participation in the crime than they were actually responsible for; or (iii) agree to give evidence in matters they might not have been privy to. Such confessions are not necessarily obtained by unfair or oppressive means; they are simply a function of a “propensity to please” nature that some persons with such disabilities have. This general disposition to please, coupled with an increased level of compliance towards authority figures mean that these people are highly susceptible to a suggestive line of questioning. Unaware of this propensity, the investigating officer (“IO”) would be inclined to accept their admission of guilt as genuine.
“This project was “doomed” to succeed.”
– N. Sreenivasan, SC
At present, the first point of contact for any accused persons in the criminal justice system is the police. If the accused carries an ID card, the IO will contact the next of kin and the voluntary welfare organisation (“VWO”) stated on the card. If the accused does not carry an ID card but is suspected to be suffering from mental or learning disabilities, the IO will contact the Centre for Enabled Living (“CEL”) to check whether he/she is registered on the Developmental Disability Registry (“DDR”). Once the accused is confirmed to be registered on the DDR or carries an ID card, the VWO will be contacted and a social worker or counsellor will be assigned to assist with the police interview.
However, the scope of the DDR is limited in that it does not capture the full scale of persons with mental disabilities. Individuals who are diagnosed with low IQ, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorder may not be captured in the DDR. Hence, there may be a significant percentage of the population of persons with ID and other learning disabilities that are not captured. In addition, the issuance of the ID card is on a voluntary registration basis. Not every intellectual disability is overtly manifested and as such, law enforcement officers may not be able to identify and properly handle persons with ID if they are not aware of the condition.
To look into this concern, the AGC led an inter-agency committee to examine whether police investigation officers were able to adequately identify accused persons with intellectual disabilities or mental disorders during police investigations. The committee, chaired by Senior State Counsel Mr Wong Kok Weng, comprised representatives from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”), the Singapore Police Force and the National Council of Social Services. The Criminal Bar was represented by a team from the Criminal Practice Committee of the Law Society of Singapore led by Mr N. Sreenivasan, SC and representatives from the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore. The committee quickly found that there was no screening tool in place to assist the police with identifying accused persons with such disabilities. Undertaking cross jurisdiction research, they then proposed the use of the Hayes Ability Screening Index (“HASI”).
The HASI, named after its creator Professor Susan Hayes, is a simple screening test consisting of a series of assessment items and is designed to be administered by non-psychologists. The HASI does not diagnose the presence of intellectual disability, but rather, identifies those people who either need to be referred for further diagnostic assessment, or where sensitivity should be exercised during the course of a police interview. The HASI is designed to be over-inclusive, and may also identify individuals suffering from a psychiatric illness or substance abuse disorder. All of these groups will benefit from further assessment or special protection whilst in police custody. Furthermore, in many cases, these other conditions may mask the presence of intellectual disability.
To validate the accuracy of the HASI screening test locally, the Law Society of Singapore’s Pro Bono Services Office secured funding and, with MSF, coordinated a pilot study on a sample size of 188 accused persons, inmates, and probationers, with support for the study coming from Raffles College of Higher Education, the Singapore Psychological Society, Singapore Prisons and the Subordinate Courts Community Court.
It was at this stage of the project that I signed on as a volunteer with the Pro Bono Services Office. Apart from assisting the core team with administrative details like the drafting of assessment procedure checklists and consent forms, a fellow volunteer and I offered our services as the official guinea pigs for the first few runs of the HASI. It took a while to iron out some of the administrative nightmares (ie making sure the information sheet was coherent to a lay person) but we quickly got into the swing of things.
At this point, simple statistics meant that most of the participants at this early phase of the project were persons with normal intellectual capabilities. It was by no means detrimental to the pilot, however, as the HASI was very accurately corroborated by another more vigorous IQ test: the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (“WASI”). The HASI-WASI, as it was affectionately known, was coming along rather nicely and we increased our efforts to widen our pool of participants.
I vividly remember the first person that I checked off as “positive” for a possible ID. She was an unassuming young lady in her early thirties who was able to converse with us in simple English but professed trouble with Math and Science subjects in school. As I watched her struggle through a “join-the-dots” puzzle section of the HASI, I couldn’t help but think that it was possibly the most perfect example of how ordinary some persons with ID can come across but yet belong to this vulnerable group of people who deserve better protection within the criminal justice system.
“This is a bold new step for all of us involved in the administration of justice”
– Attorney-General Steven Chong
Given that statements recorded at police stations play a very important role in investigations and any eventual trial, it is crucial that during the interview process, intellectually disabled persons receive appropriate assistance to communicate clearly with the police investigation officers.
The approach that has been identified by the committee is to have an Appropriate Adult (“AA”) present during police interviews involving persons suspected of having intellectual disabilities. This approach has been successfully used in England and Scotland, in relation to investigations involving not just intellectually disabled suspects, but other vulnerable suspects as well. The AA’s main role would be to assist both the police officer and the suspect in ensuring that the suspect is able to communicate with the police officer effectively and is not hampered by his intellectual disabilities in this communication.
In order to test the efficacy and practicality of employing the HASI as a screening tool and subsequently the presence of an AA during a police interview, a pilot study has been commissioned to be carried out at Bedok Police Division from 1 April 2013 for a period of six months. A briefing session and recruitment drive for volunteers to sign up as AAs was held on 16 March 2013 at the North East Community Development Council. Hosted by the Law Society and the North East Community Development Council, the event kicked off with an inspiring address by the Guest-of-Honour, Attorney-General Mr Steven Chong. It was followed by welcome addresses from the North East District Mayor Mr Teo Ser Luck and the Law Society President, Mr Lok Vi Ming SC.
It was truly heartening to see so many faces that day, especially since the briefing took place at 9am on a Saturday morning! We were hoping for a good turnout and the response was simply overwhelming. For those who did attend that morning, we thank you and apologise for the lack of seats for everyone. More than 140 persons attended the briefing and 89 registered on the spot to be AAs. Special thanks must also be given to North East CDC who supported this cause by inviting allied healthcare professionals, social workers, teachers and grassroots leaders in the district to come forward as volunteers.
Having been a volunteer at the early stages of the HASI pilot study, it is somewhat surreal to see the project come to fruition and attract such great volunteer support as we proceed to the AA phase. I can only imagine how the committee and the rest of the volunteers must feel and I count myself fortunate to have played a part in this historic study.
The Law Society’s’ Pro Bono Services Office will continue to recruit and administer the AA scheme. Practising lawyers, unfortunately, will not be able to act as AAs but do help spread the word to friends and family members who are keen to participate. Individuals interested to volunteer as AAs may register or obtain details via an e-mail to
► Lynette Marie Rama
Pro Bono Services Office
The Law Society of Singapore