Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Court reserves judgement on whether Lee Suet Fern should be sanctioned for role in Lee Kuan Yew's final will

SINGAPORE — Judges presiding over Mrs Lee Suet Fern's disciplinary hearing on Thursday (Aug 13) focused their attention on a particular rule — that a lawyer shall not act for a client who intends to make a significant gift by will to any member of her family — in questioning her defence that it would have been hard for her to say no to Lee Kuan Yew.

Court reserves judgement on whether Lee Suet Fern should be sanctioned for role in Lee Kuan Yew's final will

The Court of Three Judges — the highest disciplinary body in dealing with lawyers’ misconduct — was deliberating whether Mrs Lee Suet Fern should be struck off the rolls.

  • Judgement was reserved following a five-hour hearing held over Zoom
  • Former Attorney-General Walter Woon represented Mrs Lee in court
  • He stated that it would be “insulting” to Lee Kuan Yew’s intelligence if Mrs Lee had told him to seek “independent legal advice” when he sought help
  • Court of Three Judges referred the senior counsel back to what was stated in the Legal Profession Rules
  • A judge pointed out that the rule “cannot be waived” and “is absolute”, while another judge said Mrs Lee was obligated to “say no” to Lee Kuan Yew

 

SINGAPORE — Judges presiding over Mrs Lee Suet Fern's disciplinary hearing on Thursday (Aug 13) focused their attention on a particular rule — that a lawyer shall not act for a client who intends to make a significant gift by will to any member of her family — in questioning her defence that it would have been hard for her to say no to Lee Kuan Yew.

The Court of Three Judges — the highest disciplinary body in dealing with lawyers’ misconduct — was deliberating whether Mrs Lee, 62, who is the wife of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the late Lee Kuan Yew's younger son, should be struck off the rolls.

The Law Society is arguing that she should, based on the 206-page findings of a disciplinary tribunal in February. It found that Mrs Lee, a senior lawyer of 37 years, had “misled” a frail and ailing Lee Kuan Yew into signing his last will.

The tribunal said her misconduct was grave enough to disbar her.

But ultimately, it is for the judges to determine if the Law Society’s charges were made out and, if they were, decide if Mrs Lee is to be fined, suspended or disbarred.

Judgement was reserved following a five-hour hearing, which was held over video conferencing platform Zoom with Mrs Lee sitting in as a respondent and Mr Lee Hsien Yang sitting in as an observer, on Thursday.

During the hearing, her lawyer, former Attorney-General Walter Woon, argued that there is “no case” for the imposition of sanctions. “All charges should be dismissed — every single one,” he said.

In building his case, Prof Woon, a senior counsel, said that to tell Lee Kuan Yew to seek “independent legal advice” when he sought help would be “insulting to his intelligence”.

“What was (Mrs Lee) supposed to advise?... To go to MM (referring to the late Lee Kuan Yew’s last-held position in the Cabinet as minister mentor) and say, ‘I can’t do this, you should get independent legal advice’ is actually insulting to his intelligence.

“It implies that he doesn’t know what he was doing. He would have exploded. The sound of the explosion would have been heard all the way to the Istana.”

He added that Lee Kuan Yew was a starred double first in law from Cambridge University, and was “not known to be a patient man”.

THE JUDGES’ REMARKS

But the three judges presiding over the case — Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash and Justice Woo Bih Li — kept returning to what was stated in Rule 46 of the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules, in clarifying Prof Woon’s position.

The provision, which formed the basis for one of the two charges, stated that a lawyer shall not act for a client who intends to make a significant gift by will to any member of her family and shall advise the client to be “independently advised” in respect of the gift.

Justice Woo said: “But the rule, as it is, cannot be waived. It may well be that the testator is a lawyer with a bright mind… But I thought this rule is absolute.”

Justice Prakash remarked that although Lee Kuan Yew may want Mrs Lee to act due to trust, the lawyer “has to say no”. “The rule helps the lawyer, so the testator (Lee Kuan Yew) does not get upset. The rules say, ‘I can’t do it. I cannot be in breach of these rules. It is my profession.’”

She continued: “(What sanction Mrs Lee gets) is a different (issue), but the breach is there. If you look at the guidance under the rule, it says the solicitor is absolutely prohibited.”

Prof Woon, however, argued that Lee Kuan Yew already received independent advice from his lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li, who is the niece of his late wife Kwa Geok Choo, before Mrs Lee got involved in the last will in December 2013.

The first will, which formed the basis for the last will, was drafted by Ms Kwa. Lee Kuan Yew had signed it in 2011, although five other versions of the will overrode each other in between.

“With respect, Your Honour, if you are talking about taking independent advice, he already had that. He already thought it through, already discussed with his children and (Ms Kwa) drafted that will. What other meaningful advice would have been taken?” he asked.

Referring to the tribunal’s finding that Lee Kuan Yew was a 90-year-old frail old man who didn’t understand his will despite reading and re-reading it, Prof Woon said in his closing remarks: “May I say this dishonours the memory of Lee Kuan Yew.”

He added: “You are saying to the world that he was a doddering old dotard. This is unacceptable and is not an inference that can be drawn.” 

And while the tribunal made Mrs Lee and her husband out to be “deceitful” and “dishonest”, Prof Woon and Mrs Lee’s other lawyer, Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan, in written submissions, argued that the tribunal had “cherry picked” evidence.

It had, for instance, ignored parts of a Nov 30, 2013 email recording Lee Kuan Yew’s wish to address the possible degazetting of his home at 38 Oxley Road as part of the changes to his will, they said.

The Oxley Road house has been at the centre of a dispute between his children — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

“(Lee Kuan Yew) was still considering how to address the degazetting,” they wrote.

They also argued that the tribunal “ignored important evidence favourable” to Mrs Lee, such as the point that Lee Kuan Yew was himself expediting the signing of his last will.

Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, 2015 at age 91, and the last will was signed at about 11.10am on Dec 17, 2013 — about 15 months before his death.

FAMILIAL SETTING ‘CAN’T BE DISCOUNTED’

At the same time, Senior Counsel Tan argued that it cannot be discounted that what occurred between Mrs Lee and her late father-in-law was in a familial setting, and not in a commercial setting.

“When you are dealing between family members, the consideration is not consideration of the lawyer to clients,” he said. “When you are dealing with family, what you are looking at is affection, love, concerns that the familial relationship is preserved and progressed.”

He added: “No doubt between family members, there is trust and expectation. Before you are a lawyer, you are a son and daughter… The rules are not the rules of this court.

“The court had said quite clearly that love, affection, familial relationship should not be scrutinised. It cannot be that because a lawyer is also a family member, a lawyer should refrain from assisting the family member.”

Chief Justice Menon said he would have no difficulty with this as a broad proposition, but the context of the present case is that the transaction in question involves a gift to Mrs Lee’s husband.

The last will stated that each sibling was to get a one-third share of the various properties that formed the bulk of Lee Kuan Yew’s estate and the Oxley Road house is to be demolished after Dr Lee moves out, among other clauses.

WHAT THE LAW SOCIETY SAID

The Law Society was represented by Ms Koh Swee Yen of WongPartnership on Thursday.

Among other points, Ms Koh argued that prior to sending an email at 7.08pm on Dec 16, 2013, Mrs Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang already knew that Mrs Kwa is going to be away. So shortly after sending it, Mrs Lee “took it upon herself to prepare the will and come up with a version of the will”, she said.

When Justice Prakash asked if she was implying that Mrs Lee had manoeuvred or forced herself into position into becoming Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer, Ms Koh said this was what she meant in essence.

Chief Justice Menon later asked if that was a case that the Law Society needs to mount, and said that there is no need for her to go into that if her key point was to establish whether there is an implied retainer between Mrs Lee and Lee Kuan Yew, in respect of the last will.

The implied retainer argument was to make out the basis of whether Mrs Lee had breached her professional duties. Only if this is made out can there be a question of whether the breach amounted to “gross improper conduct”.

Ms Koh’s position is that if there is an implied retainer, there should be sanctions. “And it should be the most severe sanctions,” she added.

Chief Justice Menon said: “I am puzzled as to why you are trying to run a case that this was all connivance by (Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Mrs Lee).”

EVENTS LEADING UP TO THURSDAY’S HEARING

This was the first open court hearing on Mrs Lee’s disciplinary case.

Here is a timeline of what had transpired so far:

  • June 2017: The dispute between the late Mr Lee’s children over his final will went public. Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee posted a six-page statement on their Facebook accounts accusing their elder brother, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, of abusing his authority to prevent the demolition of Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road home.

  • Dec 4, 2018: The Attorney-General’s Chambers referred a case of possible professional misconduct involving Mrs Lee to the Law Society, with Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee asking for it to be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.

  • Feb 13, 2019: Chief Justice Menon appointed a disciplinary tribunal to hear and investigate whether Mrs Lee breached her professional duties in her involvement in the preparation and execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s last will.

  • July 1-5 and Oct 7, 2019: Tribunal held a five-day evidentiary hearing on the matter behind closed doors, followed by a half-day hearing to hear closing submissions.

  • Feb 18, 2020: Tribunal issued its verdict, finding Mrs Lee guilty of improper professional conduct.

  • Aug 13, 2020: Court of Three Judges reviews the tribunal’s proceedings as Mrs Lee’s lawyers contend that its findings and decision were incorrect.

Related topics

Lee Suet Fern Lee Kuan Yew lawyers' misconduct 38 Oxley Road Lee Hsien Yang Lee Hsien Loong

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.

Aa