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High Court orders fresh disciplinary tribunal hearing on complaint of alleged overcharging by senior lawyer

SINGAPORE — The High Court has ordered a fresh disciplinary tribunal to hear a complaint of alleged overcharging after S$8.8 million in legal bills were issued to a wealthy elderly widow by a senior lawyer.

The High Court has ruled that a fresh disciplinary tribunal hearing should be convened to consider a complaint of overcharging against senior lawyer Alvin Yeo.

The High Court has ruled that a fresh disciplinary tribunal hearing should be convened to consider a complaint of overcharging against senior lawyer Alvin Yeo.

SINGAPORE — The High Court has ordered a fresh disciplinary tribunal to hear a complaint of alleged overcharging after S$8.8 million in legal bills were issued to a wealthy elderly widow by a senior lawyer.

Charges presented to the original tribunal — which dismissed the complaint — by the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) against Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo were not properly framed as they did not consider the widow’s mental capacity, Justice Valerie Thean found. The tribunal also wrongly decided that mental capacity issues were not within the scope of the complaint, she added.

The original complaint was made to the LawSoc by three Court of Appeal judges, who were concerned about the legal fees charged to the elderly widow and her mental capacity. The judges had been hearing a case in a 4.5-year-long legal dispute over her capacity to make decisions on her considerable wealth. Mr Yeo and his firm WongPartnership represented the woman.

In a 64-page judgement released on Wednesday (Jan 8), Justice Thean said that charges brought by the LawSoc had failed to present the “gravamen” — that is, the most serious aspect — of the complaint, which was the woman’s mental capacity.

“A failure to fulfil a legal duty amounts to illegality. Since the charges were erroneous, it must follow that the determination was also erroneous and has to be set aside,” she wrote.

The judge said the disciplinary tribunal did not consider the mental capacity of Mr Yeo's client, as well as the adequacy of the steps taken by Mr Yeo — a former People's Action Party Member of Parliament — and his law firm, to ensure that their client was “capable of instructing WongPartnership and was capable of agreeing to the fees charged by WongPartnership”.

Instead, the tribunal had looked only into the charges of overcharging that were brought by legal counsel representing LawSoc, but failed to take into account the widow’s mental ability to make decisions regarding her property and affairs.

The tribunal had concluded in June last year that there was “no cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action” against Mr Yeo. With the latest High Court judgement, this decision has been set aside in full.

HOW COMPLAINT CAME ABOUT

The original litigation involving the widow concerned an application made under the Mental Capacity Act to declare that she was mentally unable to make decisions.

The application was made by the client’s sisters, who wanted to act as the widow’s deputies. After an initial rejection and a subsequent appeal, the application was granted, though with new deputies appointed.

Justice Thean said in her ruling that the Court of Appeal had held that the widow lacked decision-making capacity as early as October 2010. WongPartnership was hired as her retainer from December 2010 to June 2015.

In November 2015, the appellate court grew concerned about the fees she paid to the law firm. It asked her new deputies to investigate the amount and validity of the fees, and they responded with their concern over her medical transcripts.

The “fundamental question”, as framed by the deputies, was “whether it is sufficient for solicitors to rely on medical reports or whether solicitors should ... seek confirmation from doctors after highlighting the specific areas which may give rise to concern”, said Justice Thean.

This was also before the court had learnt about the S$8.8 million fee, she noted. The fee was later discounted by 32.5 per cent.

Justice Thean noted that WongPartnership told the court in 2017 that in determining if the woman had the requisite capacity, they had considered that they could reasonably rely on the instructions they received from her while alone with the widow, and how consistent and coherent she was. They also considered the “clear medical opinions from five specialists who examined her and concluded that she had mental capacity”.

Hearing these responses, the court then referred the issue to the LawSoc for investigation by a disciplinary tribunal, flagging her mental capacity as an area for concern.

A complaint was sent to the LawSoc on July 31, 2017 by the Registrar of the Supreme Court. Under the Legal Profession Act, LawSoc’s governing council can apply to the Chief Justice to appoint a disciplinary tribunal to look into more serious complaints against legal practitioners, with the society prosecuting the case.

“Accordingly, the Court of Appeal was of the view that the areas of concern highlighted by the deputies, and WongPartnership’s responses, ought to be investigated by a disciplinary tribunal. These areas of concern related to mental capacity issues,” said Justice Thean.

THE NEED FOR A NEW TRIBUNAL

The disciplinary tribunal was appointed and the LawSoc, as the applicant, initially brought four charges against Mr Yeo on Nov 8, 2017. Two of the charges had looked into the mental capacity of the widow.

Mr Yeo’s lawyers had also said they were prepared to address the issue of whether steps were taken to ascertain the widow’s mental capacity to engage WongPartnership, to give legal instructions and thus incur legal fees.

But these charges were ultimately withdrawn at pre-hearing conferences due to the actions of the disciplinary tribunal and LawSoc.

Said Justice Thean: “It is clear… that the disciplinary tribunal took the view that the complaint was exclusively confined to the issue of overcharging and that issues concerning (the widow’s) mental capacity were not relevant. Yet, it is also evident that the disciplinary tribunal recognised that it was the role of the LawSoc to frame and proceed with the appropriate charges arising from the complaint.”

When the disciplinary proceedings concluded after five hearing days from September 2018 to March last year, it appears from the dismissal of the complaint that the disciplinary tribunal “was only focused on the issue of overcharging without any regard to issues of mental capacity”, said Justice Thean.

Mr Yeo’s lawyers contended that the disciplinary tribunal was required to hear and investigate only the charges placed before it by the LawSoc, which had “unilaterally withdrew the charges pertaining to (the widow’s) mental capacity”.

It would be “unjust” to subject Mr Yeo to another investigation, his lawyers had argued.

In her judgement, Justice Thean agreed that the tribunal had failed its legal duty to hear and investigate both the complaint and the charges.

She added that the two duties are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact complementary “in that the expectation must be that the charges reflect the gravamen of the complaint and fall within the scope of the complaint”.

But she said the disciplinary tribunal had not been procedurally improper or irrational, nor had it refused to hear evidence. It was the LawSoc which had “erred” in framing the charges. “It is not tenable to suggest that the disciplinary tribunal had refused to hear such evidence when the LawSoc did not proffer the evidence,” she said.

The LawSoc’s representative, Mr Jason Lim, had “candidly accepted that the LawSoc’s case was run on the basis that evidence of mental capacity was not relevant to the proceedings,” said Justice Thean.

On the matter of subjecting Mr Yeo to another investigation, she also pointed out that the court was able to review the errors by the LawSoc and the disciplinary tribunal only after disciplinary proceedings have concluded, as Parliament had moved in 2008 to speed up the tribunal process by introducing a new section in the Legal Profession Act that forbade judicial review until proceedings ended.

“The situation is an unfortunate one,” she concluded.

WongPartnership and Mr Yeo declined comment on the High Court's decision. TODAY has also sought comment from LawSoc.

 

Related topics

high court tribunal alvin yeo lawyer legal duty WongPartnership Law Society of Singapore overcharging

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