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Tribunal dismisses complaint of possible overcharging against senior lawyer over S$8.8 million legal bill

SINGAPORE — A disciplinary tribunal has dismissed a complaint of possible overcharging against a senior lawyer over an S$8.8 million legal bill sent to a wealthy elderly widow.

A complaint against Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo of WongPartnership was sent to the Law Society of Singapore by the Registrar of the Supreme Court, over legal fees which the lawyer had sought to claim from his client.

A complaint against Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo of WongPartnership was sent to the Law Society of Singapore by the Registrar of the Supreme Court, over legal fees which the lawyer had sought to claim from his client.

SINGAPORE — A disciplinary tribunal has dismissed a complaint of possible overcharging against a senior lawyer over an S$8.8 million legal bill sent to a wealthy elderly widow.

The tribunal found that “no cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action” had been made out under the relevant legislation against WongPartnership lawyer Alvin Yeo, who is a senior counsel and former Member of Parliament. 

The complaint was made to the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) by three Court of Appeal judges, who were concerned about the legal fees charged to the client who lacked mental capacity.

The 4.5-year-long series of legal proceedings that resulted in the hefty bill had involved the client — who was not named in the findings of the tribunal — and her family members in a dispute over her ability to make decisions on her considerable assets.

The findings of the tribunal were published in a June 14 report that was released on LawNet, a research and legal information portal run by the Singapore Academy of Law.

The report stated that Mr Yeo’s client was a widow in her 80s.

In her youth, she had received legal education in England and worked in a bank. When her father died, she inherited his estate of about S$200 million, and was expected to receive another S$100 million from the estate.

During the litigation in question, Senior District Judge Foo Juat Yien had described Mr Yeo’s client as a “lady of very considerable wealth”.

He said: “With substantial means, she is accustomed to a life where her physical needs and wants are tended to quickly. And if she should require advice on any matter, whether it be medical services, legal or financial, she is well able to access and afford the best services.”

Mr Yeo acted for his client in a series of legal proceedings from November 2010 to June 2015.

The crux of the case revolved around an application under the Mental Capacity Act to declare that his client was “unable to make decisions on her property and affairs”, because of an “impairment of or a disturbance in the functioning of her mind or brain”.

The report added that the woman was being “unduly influenced” by her daughter and son-in-law, and that her sisters had made the application.

The sisters wanted to be appointed as the client’s deputies, so that they could act on her behalf.

All three parties were represented by different law firms.

The application was granted after a 30-day hearing in the Family Court, but it was later dismissed by the High Court after an appeal.

The application was once again reinstated after the client’s sisters appealed to the Court of Appeal, though with new deputies appointed.

The deputies were stated by the report to be established legal, accountancy and banking professionals, and the Tan Kok Quan Partnership was appointed to act for them.

‘PAID WITHOUT QUESTION’

The findings said that in the course of the engagement, WongPartnership had issued 15 invoices, computed on a time-cost basis, to Mr Yeo’s client, which were paid without question.

After the invoices were issued, the law firm drew up a solicitor-and-client bill for the widow.

In the bill, about S$7.56 million was claimed in costs. This was made up of about S$7.1 million charged under the 15 invoices and another S$436,300 which was not previously billed.

An extra sum of about S$1.32 million was claimed for disbursements.

HOW COMPLAINT AROSE 

The complaint against Mr Yeo arose when a coram of the Court of Appeal, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Justice of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice of Appeal Andrew Phang, learnt of the legal fees which Mr Yeo had sought to claim from his client.

On April 26, 2017, the coram informed the parties involved that the sums billed and agreed upon were “objectively very high”.

They said this was a matter of concern as Mr Yeo’s client was “found to lack (mental) capacity” at the material time.

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.

The coram of judges had also ordered that the client’s daughter and son-in-law be liable to foot part of the costs for all legal proceedings.

Negotiations between the parties involved began and the legal fees were lowered.

WongPartnership “granted” a 32.5 per cent discount in respect of the costs.

This brought it down to about S$5.1 million, of which Mr Yeo’s client had to fork out about S$542,000. The remainder was to be paid by the woman’s daughter and son-in-law.

A discount of about S$27,000 was also given for the disbursements. Mr Yeo’s client bore S$100,000, while her daughter and son-in-law again paid the rest.

WongPartnership also refunded S$5,835 which had been erroneously charged to Mr Yeo’s client.

LAWSOC FAILED TO PROVE ANY OVERCHARGING: TRIBUNAL 

Separately, acting on the complaint from the Court of Appeal judges, the LawSoc started disciplinary proceedings against Mr Yeo. It is not clear from the findings when the proceedings began.

The report said that the LawSoc began with four charges. This included three for allegedly failing to ensure that his client had no mental capacity to litigate, and a fourth charge for allegedly overcharging her.

A fifth charge was later added to deal with the reduced legal fees that the parties had agreed to pay.

The first three charges were not proceeded with when it was pointed out to the LawSoc’s counsel that the charges did not relate to matters the coram had directed to be investigated.

Although a contract had been agreed upon and signed between Mr Yeo and his client, the findings stated that there may still have been overcharging as there are rules that regulate the legal charges and costs.

The rules state that fees are based on factors which include a legal practitioner’s standing and experience, the nature of the legal work concerned, as well as the time necessary to undertake the legal work.

Among the defence arguments, Mr Yeo’s counsel, Mr Chelva R Rajah, said that there would be overcharging only if a legal practitioner “cannot in good faith charge the fee, disbursements or amount” based on the above factors.

Mr Yeo and two other main members of his law firm, Ms Monica Chong and Ms Aw Wen Ni, gave evidence on the complexity of the case. This sometimes saw them flying to Hong Kong to give advice to Mr Yeo’s client when she was there.

Expert witnesses, such as Mr Peter Cuthbert Low and Mr Lok Vi Ming, were called to give their opinions on the matter. Both men were former presidents of the Law Society.

Mr Lok said Mr Yeo’s client wanted “strong representation” to handle her case, and “had the means to pay for it”.

Ultimately, the tribunal concluded on May 28 this year that the LawSoc, while acting in “good faith in compliance with the complaint”, had failed to prove there was any overcharging by WongPartnership.

It reiterated that there was no cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action to be taken against Mr Yeo.

Related topics

lawyer alvin yeo WongPartnership Law Society of Singapore

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