Lawyers in Dallas Buyers Club action face punishment

Lawyers in Dallas Buyers Club action face punishment
Jared Leto and Matthew McCounaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.
Published: 4:15 AM, May 17, 2016

SINGAPORE — The Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) will be going after two former lawyers of the legal firm representing United States film studio Dallas Buyers Club LLC, following a complaint lodged last year on their conduct in civil claims against illegal downloaders of the movie.

In a reply to the complainant Internet Society (Singapore), which TODAY has seen, the LawSoc said an inquiry committee has decided that a formal investigation by a disciplinary tribunal was not necessary, but that the lawyers in question “should be given a warning, reprimand or order to pay a penalty of not more than S$10,000”.

The exact punishment will be decided by the LawSoc council after the lawyers respond to whether or not they wish to be heard on their side of the story in the matter — a procedural requirement under the Legal Profession Act (LPA).

“If a penalty or reprimand is imposed by Council, it will be published in the Government Gazette as required under the LPA,” said the society in a May 11 letter to Mr Harish Pillay, who is immediate past president of Internet Society (Singapore), a non-governmental organisation promoting Internet usage. The LawSoc letter was signed off by its director of conduct and chairman of the inquiry committee K Gopalan.

When contacted yesterday, the society declined to comment. “Under the LPA, the Law Society is required to maintain confidentiality for disciplinary proceedings save for information which the Society is required by law to publish,” said a spokesperson.

In June last year, Internet Society (Singapore) complained to LawSoc that Mr Robert Raj Joseph and Mr Lee Heng Eam, who were both still with Samuel Seow Law Corporation then, had issued letters threatening criminal proceedings to advance civil claims against the film’s pirates. These demand letters to 77 M1 subscribers asking for a written offer of damages and costs 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.

At that time, Mr Samuel Seow, the firm’s managing director, had said a new batch of letters that were worded differently were sent to StarHub and Singtel subscribers who allegedly downloaded the movie illegally. He had also said Mr Raj, who was the director of the litigation and dispute resolution practice group in the firm, was leaving the firm, but the departure was not linked to his handling of the case.

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”.

Both Mr Raj and Mr Lee could not be reached for comments yesterday. After leaving the firm, Mr Raj set up his own practice in July last year. Mr Lee left after him, and has since become an in-house legal counsel, according to Mr Seow.

Mr Seow added that he had not heard of the latest development from the LawSoc. “It would not be right for me to comment on this,” he said. “We want to take the position that we protect copyright owners. It’s unfortunate, but they are my former employees.”