Singapore

Law firm in Dallas Buyers Club action accused of bullying tactics

Law firm in Dallas Buyers Club action accused of bullying tactics
Jared Leto and Matthew McCounaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.
Lawyers representing film studio had used threats of criminal proceedings to advance civil claims, says NGO
Published: 4:16 AM, June 23, 2015
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SINGAPORE — The local chapter of a non-governmental organisation promoting the use of Internet has lodged a complaint with the Law Society, against lawyers from the legal firm representing the United States film studio Dallas Buyers Club LLC.

The studio is going after people here who allegedly downloaded the Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club illegally, and the first batch of demand letters issued to 77 M1 subscribers by the lawyers from Samuel Seow Law Corporation had used threats of criminal proceedings to advance civil claims, thus breaching the Law Society’s ethical guidelines for legal practitioners, said the Internet Society (Singapore)’s president Harish Pillay, who personally handed the written complaint to the Law Society last week.

The complaint is against Mr Robert Raj Joseph and Mr Lee Heng Eam from Samuel Seow Law Corp’s litigation and dispute resolution practice group. Mr Raj is the director of the group while Mr Lee is an associate. When contacted, Mr Raj said he is on leave and referred this newspaper to the firm’s managing director Samuel Seow.

Mr Seow told TODAY he has no knowledge of the complaint. He added that the demand letters, which were first sent out in April, were issued by Mr Raj, who is leaving the company and has been placed on gardening leave. Mr Raj’s departure is not linked to the handling of the case, Mr Seow said. He added that he and a “new team” took over the case file from Mr Raj just last week.

Mr Seow said his law firm recently sent out a new batch of letters — which were worded differently — to StarHub and Singtel subscribers who allegedly downloaded the movie illegally.

The demand letters issued to the M1 subscribers had asked for a written offer of damages and costs, and Mr Raj said in April the studio had received and accepted “quite a number of” offers of compensation. These letters had spelt out a maximum fine of S$50,000 or imprisonment not exceeding three years for a conviction under Section 136(3) of the Copyright Act, and a maximum S$20,000 fine and six months’ jail term under Section 136(3A) of the Act.

Mr Pillay, who works in the information technology industry, said the demand letters were worded in the manner of a “big bully”, and the law firm had engaged in a “bad bullying tactic”.

“These words make people panic, especially those who are not legally trained ... They are blaming people of alleged transgression without proof ... Those who are a bit naive will settle,” said Mr Pillay. He noted that some alleged offenders may have made compensations without seeking legal help.

The Law Society’s Practice Directions and Rulings Guide 2013 states that it is improper for a solicitor to “communicate in writing or otherwise a threat of criminal proceedings in order to achieve a stated objective in any circumstance, for example, to compel a witness to attend at the solicitor’s office to give a statement or to sign a written statement despatched to him”.

Contacted by TODAY, the Law Society declined to comment on the complaint. Its spokesperson said the society was bound by the Legal Profession Act to maintain confidentiality of proceedings that are being conducted.

“The Law Society is therefore unable to comment if it has or has not received a complaint against any named lawyer or the status of any complaint received,” said the spokesperson.

Apart from Singapore, Dallas Buyers Club LLC has also started legal action in Australia and the US, where it is going after more than 4,700 and 1,000 Internet users, respectively. It had reportedly identified more than 500 Singapore IP addresses here through which the movie was said to have been downloaded illegally.

The Internet Society (Singapore) said there are alternative ways of encouraging legitimate content distribution. Lawyer Bryan Tan, who is the chapter’s treasurer, said that with the prevalence of the Internet, work will be copied and shared, and the question is how to legitimise such practices. The Creative Commons licensing system, which allows content creators to decide if their work can be modified or shared under commercial or non-commercial grounds, was set up to address this problem, Mr Pillay pointed out. “In this day and age, everything is a remix,” he said.

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