KNOW YOUR LAWYER: How the desire to fight for the vulnerable shaped Vigneesh Nainar's career
The true crime genre in entertainment has become so popular over the years that fans have close to 3,000 podcast series to pick from, alongside a plethora of true crime books and shows. The growing popularity of this genre largely seems to stem from people’s longing to gain a better understanding of our complex human nature and many fans find the genre therapeutic or cathartic.
One fan went beyond this and turned his love for true crime into a career in criminal law.
Vigneesh Nainar, a senior associate at Tang Thomas LLC, decided to pursue law after serving his National Service after noticing how law influenced many aspects of daily life. While he explored different areas of law like civil and criminal litigation and family law in his early career, his love for the investigative aspect of true crime podcasts and documentaries, as well as the analyses into the psychology of offenders, kept Vigneesh interested in criminal law.
Last year, Vigneesh joined the prestigious Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) fellowship. Founded by the Law Society Pro Bono Services, select junior lawyers are given the opportunity to pursue pro bono legal service full-time. As a CLAS fellow, Vigneesh represented numerous needy and vulnerable individuals in court throughout 2020.
Vigneesh said: “It is often said that criminal work doesn’t pay particularly well. And this is true especially for more blue collar crimes. And CLAS gave me the opportunity to really focus on doing only criminal work and allowed me to develop myself in a way that no other opportunity could have.
“I had access to resources and people who were nurturing and supportive. Apart from that it was very interesting to really be immersed in that world, of meeting accused persons every week to hear about their cases when I conducted the merits tests.”
He added: “Finally, it also gave me a chance to really give back to the more underprivileged in our society. Some of the people I represented, were really people who needed good representation and could not afford it. At CLAS, we would fight hard for each case and pursue the fairest result no matter how small the offence or how impecunious the individual.”
One of the most memorable cases Vigneesh was involved in during his time as a CLAS fellow was a case involving a young food delivery rider who had crashed into an elderly man:
“He was a guy who could have been me. Ahmad had recently been retrenched. He was doing whatever jobs he could do to support his family and one of those jobs that he was doing at the time was being a food delivery rider.
“On the day of the incident, he was riding along the track on the way to make a delivery. This man had crossed Ahmad's path (there was a collision) and unfortunately the man fractured his nose. That eventually opened up into Ahmad being charged with the offense of causing grievous hurt by a negligent act. That carries with it a penalty of about maximum of two years as well as a $5,000 fine or a combination of both.”
At the time when Vigneesh received this case, there were quite a number of accidents involving personal mobility devices (PMDs) happening around Singapore. Vigneesh initially thought the case was a very run-of-the-mill involving an errant PMD rider but soon found that this was not the case at all.
“After the first meeting with him, I realized that that was not the case. He was seemed like a hard-working guy, just down on his luck a little bit. I felt like I could relate to him because we were the same age and it could have been a very easy situation to find yourself in – especially, completely by accident. It made me want to help him just navigate that situation.”
Vigneesh helped Ahmad by first trying to get the charge withdrawn and get Ahmad a warning instead:
“On the day of the incident, he was going at a reasonable speed. This elderly gentleman crossed his path, he tried to sound his horn to warn but he could not slow down in time. He was actually able to fling his e-scooter in a different direction but he couldn't stop his body from colliding with this man.
“Immediately after the incident, Ahmad had helped this victim and gave him water, called the ambulance. He even exchanged his particulars with this person. There was no follow-up after that from the victim, except just to say that he was doing alright. On top of that, he offered to pay half of the victim's medical expenses, which was quite difficult for Ahmad given his particular financial circumstances.
“The victim was also discharged on the same day which led us to think, even without a medical report, that the injuries that he sustained were not particularly serious. So we made a representation to the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) with that premise, with that goal in mind.”
The AGC rejected the representation but ended up offering to reduce the charge to one of just causing hurt by a negligent act. Ahmad ultimately ended up paying a $2,000 fine.
Vigneesh revealed that the fine was still difficult for Ahmad to pay given his financial situation. Additionally, this charge went on his criminal record, making it difficult for him to find or maintain a government job.
While Vigneesh felt that Ahmad could have appealed the case, Ahmad decided against doing so after the stress of going through the court case:
“I honestly believe that he could have appealed it. I thought that he could have pushed for a community-based sentence on appeal and this was really because he was already someone who volunteered in the community at a mosque. He also was never going to commit such an offense again, given that he no longer rode an e-scooter and no longer did food deliveries.
“However, Ahmad on the other hand after having been through this ordeal – and to him it was a stressful ordeal – he just wanted to plead guilty and get it over and done with (and) move on with his life. He just wanted this nightmare to be over.”
Vigneesh deeply empathised with Ahmad’s situation and this case strengthened his conviction to fight the good fight for his clients. He said, “…Ahmad seemed like an everyday guy. It seemed that if I was in a situation like that, I might need someone to just help me along.
“Although the result that we got was not the best result, it was something better than what he could have gotten without us. Even as simple or straightforward as it might have seemed, the legal process is intimidating for people who've never committed an offense before, who've never been through it. They do need someone to help them and walk with them through the journey just so that they understand what's going on, and how they are being treated in the system, just so that they get fair representation and they're treated fairly.”
After his one-year contract at CLAS ended, Vigneesh re-entered private practice and joined Tang Thomas LLC as a Senior Associate.
Sharing that he appreciates how driven founding partners Cynthia Tang and Joshua Raj Thomas are, Vigneesh said that joining the firm – which specialises in offering bespoke solutions for businesses – has allowed him to explore corporate work on top of criminal litigation:
“I felt that I could contribute to the firm’s growth with my criminal work, and there was a prospect of doing some very interesting civil work as well. Working with Cynthia also gives me some experience in corporate matters which thus far in my career, I hadn’t had much opportunity to learn.”
While his horizons have expanded since joining Tang Thomas LLC, Vigneesh continues fighting for the vulnerable by taking on pro-bono cases. On what his clients can expect from him, he said:
“If there are merits to a defence, clients can expect that I will pursue this to the very end. If they choose to plead guilty, I think clients can expect me to be very honest with them on their prospects of sentence, I will not sugar coat the issue. But they can be assured that I will fight hard to seek the best possible offer and explore any mitigating factor in detail.”