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    Oct 23, 2015

    CHC trial may cost over $10m in legal fees

    THE City Harvest trial is shaping up to be the most expensive criminal trial in Singapore's history.

    After 141 days in court, all six defendants - including the charismatic church pastor Kong Hee - were found guilty on Wednesday of varying counts of criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts.

    Senior lawyers The Straits Times spoke to said it would not be surprising if costs exceeded $2 million for each of the five accused still being represented by lawyers.

    Four of them are represented by Senior Counsel, regarded as the elite in the legal profession here, who can charge upwards of $1,000 an hour, said lawyers.

    The remaining defendant is former church fund manager Chew Eng Han, who has represented himself since May last year .

    Previously, he was represented by Senior Counsel Michael Khoo.

    When approached, the defendants' lawyers declined to comment.

    Chew, however, confirmed that he had paid $1.1 million in legal fees so far. Of this, $400,000 came from a fund to which church members contributed, he said.

    Put together, legal costs for the trial could shoot beyond $10 million, which would make it the most expensive criminal legal battle here, said experts.

    The figure discounts the bail posted by each accused, which ranges from $750,000 to $1 million.

    "It has been a very extensive and long trial, that would require intensive preparation over a long period of time. So the legal fees would be quite substantial," said Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming.

    Other costly criminal battles include that of former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay, acquitted of corruption in 2013.

    It was estimated then the trial could have cost more than $1 million.

    The City Harvest trial is one of the longest criminal trials on record. It is beaten by a drug trafficking trial which ran for 168 days in the 1990s.

    Veteran criminal lawyer Amolat Singh pointed out that with four senior counsel and their legal teams in tow, costs will mount quickly.

    "Every one on the team has billable hours," he said, adding that the complexity of the trial is another big factor.

    The prosecution alone has called 14 witnesses and produced more than 1,400 documents.

    "White-collar crime is always more complex than normal crime. For white-collar crime, you have so many angles, so many documents, so many vouchers, all these add to the complexity," said Mr Singh.

    However, another senior lawyer, who declined to be named, said if the $2 million in costs were averaged over the length of the trial, it would work out to a daily rate of $14,000.

    He said: "That's actually not unreasonable as compared with cases in the High Court or District Court."

    Meanwhile, despite the fact that in 2012, the Commissioner of Charities had warned the church against raising funds to pay the legal fees of the accused, former and current church members said independent efforts to raise funds have persisted.

    Former member Nanz Chong-Komo, 46, said there were always "a lot of initiatives and encouragement" in church to help the defendants financially.

    Mrs Chong-Komo left the church in 2013.

    Another church member, a prominent local businessman who declined to be named, confirmed this, and said he had personally given "a little bit".

    "This is more like a love offering, it's not a church thing, the (defendants) never solicited donations. People give of their own free will," he said.