Deepak Sharma v Law Society of Singapore

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeWoo Bih Li J
Judgment Date26 May 2016
Neutral Citation[2016] SGHC 105
Citation[2016] SGHC 105
Plaintiff CounselVergis S Abraham and Danny Quah (Providence Law Asia LLC)
Hearing Date24 July 2015,31 August 2015,23 July 2015,24 March 2016
Defendant CounselChristopher Anand Daniel, Harjean Kaur and Aw Sze Min (Advocatus Law LLP),Khoo Boo Jin and Sivakumar Ramasamy (Attorney-General's Chambers)
Subject MatterAdministrative Law,Judicial review,Disciplinary proceedings,Legal Profession
Published date20 July 2017
Date26 May 2016
Docket NumberOriginating Summons No 593 of 2014
Woo Bih Li J:

Originating Summons No 593 of 2014 (“OS 593”) is an application by Mr Deepak Sharma (“Mr Sharma”) under O 53 r 1 of the Rules of Court (Cap 322, R 5, 2014 Rev Ed) for judicial review against the decision of a review committee (“the RC”) constituted under s 85(6) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2009 Rev Ed) (“LPA”). Mr Sharma seeks leave to apply for and the grant of the following primary reliefs: A quashing order against the decision of the RC which dismissed Mr Sharma’s complaints against Mr Yeo Khirn Hai Alvin SC (“Mr Yeo SC”) and partially dismissed Mr Sharma’s complaints against Ms Melanie Ho Pei Shien (“Ms Ho”) made by way of Mr Sharma’s letter of complaint to the Law Society of Singapore (“Law Society”) dated 23 January 2014; and A mandatory order that Mr Sharma’s complaint against Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho dated 23 January 2014 be reviewed by a freshly appointed and constituted Review Committee.

In support of his application, Mr Sharma relied on the following three grounds: The RC erred in law and/or misdirected itself as to the law, in concluding that professional misconduct through gross overcharging could not be established by objective evidence that the fees claimed were grossly excessive in the “absence of other impropriety”; The RC erred in law and/or misdirected itself as to the law in its conclusion that the pursuit of the fees claimed could not constitute professional misconduct on the basis that they reflected the work of all the solicitors involved; and The RC’s reasons for concluding that the complaint against Mr Yeo SC were lacking in substance, were legally inadequate and unsustainable in law, being incapable of sustaining the RC’s conclusion, and having no reasonable or proper evidential basis, and were not open to the RC acting reasonably and lawfully.

Background

The facts in this present application are not in dispute. In 2010, Mr Sharma’s wife, Dr Susan Lim (“Dr Lim”), commenced court proceedings against the Singapore Medical Council (“SMC”) in connection with earlier disciplinary proceedings brought by the SMC against Dr Lim. The court proceedings commenced by Dr Lim were Originating Summons No 1131 of 2010 (“OS 1131”) and Originating Summons No 1252 of 2010 (“OS 1252”). Dr Lim withdrew OS 1131 and the High Court dismissed OS 1252. Dr Lim then appealed against the dismissal of OS 1252 in Civil Appeal No 80 of 2011 (“CA 80”). The Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal. Dr Lim was liable to pay costs on the standard basis to the SMC for OS 1131, OS 1252 and CA 80.

Subsequently, the SMC’s solicitors WongPartnership LLP (“WP”) sent a Without Prejudice letter dated 12 March 2012 to Dr Lim’s solicitors, Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP (“R&T”), proposing a total sum of $865,000 (excluding Goods and Services Tax (“GST”) and disbursements) for the costs of the court proceedings mentioned above in [3] (“WP’s Letter of Proposal”). On 8 June 2012, R&T replied on a Without Prejudice basis to WP objecting to the sum proposed by WP and counter-proposing a total sum of $214,000 for the same three proceedings and one summons (including GST but excluding disbursements). This counter-proposal was rejected by WP orally and then by way of a letter dated 20 November 2012.

WP then proceeded to draw up three bills of costs (“the Bills of Costs”), this time claiming a total sum of $1,007,009.37 (excluding GST and disbursements). They were Bill of Costs No 65 of 2013 (“BC 65”), Bill of Costs No 66 of 2013 (“BC 66”) and Bill of Costs No 71 of 2013 (“BC 71”). This sum was again disputed by R&T and the matter went on to taxation before an Assistant Registrar (“the AR”) on 25 June 2013. The AR taxed down the costs claimed by the SMC in the Bills of Costs to $340,000.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, WP applied for a review of the AR’s decision. For the hearing of that review, WP reduced the total sum claimed through the Bills of Costs to $720,000 (excluding GST and disbursements), ie, a reduction of $287,009.37. At the review hearing on 12 August 2013 before me, WP explained the reduction on the basis that they “gave a discount of 20% on the time used because of the overlap between lawyers. Then [they] excluded re-getting up for new lawyers who joined the team”.1 After hearing the parties, I increased the amount allowed on one of the bills of costs by $30,000 and maintained the amounts for the other two, bringing the total sum allowed on the Bills of Costs to $370,000.

On 23 January 2014, Mr Sharma sent a letter of complaint to the Law Society against Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho, who were the solicitors from WP representing the SMC (“the Complaint”). The nub of Mr Sharma’s complaint was that the costs Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho sought to recover from Dr Lim were clearly exorbitant and their actions amounted to grossly improper conduct and/or conduct unbecoming as members of an honourable profession. To support his complaint, Mr Sharma also attached an opinion by Mr Ian Winter QC, who was of the view that “a prima facie case of grossly improper conduct and/or conduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor as an officer of the Supreme Court or as a member of an honourable profession on the basis of gross overcharging” had arisen.2

The RC was subsequently constituted under s 85(6) of the LPA. Before I continue, I would mention that the LPA is the main legislation governing the conduct of advocates and solicitors practising Singapore law in Singapore. I have referred to such advocates and solicitors as “solicitors” for convenience and will continue to do so. Pursuant to s 85(8) of the LPA, the RC was to review the complaint and direct the Council of the Law Society (“the Council”) to dismiss the matter if it was unanimously of the opinion that the complaint was “frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance”, or in any other case, refer the matter back to the Chairman of the Inquiry Panel (“the Chairman”). The RC reviewed Mr Sharma’s complaint and directed the Council to dismiss it in whole as against Mr Yeo SC and in part as against Ms Ho. The reasons for the RC’s decision were conveyed to Mr Sharma by way of a letter dated 10 April 2014 from the Law Society (“the Decision Letter”),3 and it bears setting out in some detail. Before I do so, I would mention that eventually the full report of the RC was provided to the court before the completion of the hearing before me. However, as arguments had been made by reference to the Decision Letter and there was no suggestion that that letter had inaccurately stated the reasons of the RC, I will continue to refer to that letter. Where necessary, I will also refer to the report.

The Decision Letter

The RC distilled Mr Sharma’s complaint into two main limbs. The first was that “the sums claimed by [Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho] were exorbitant and demonstrative of a persistent conduct of gross overcharging by [Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho] as well as improper and/or fraudulent conduct that was opportunistic, arbitrary, unconscionable and unjustified” (“Limb 1”). The second was that “the sums claimed [by Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho] were probably in excess of what was billed to, or could have been billed under arrangements with [Mr Yeo SC’s and Ms Ho’s] client, ie, the [SMC] to which [Mr Sharma] assert[s] that the claim for party and party costs were in excess of the actual sums billed, or that could be billed under arrangements agreed with the SMC and amounted to misconduct” (“Limb 2”). Mr Sharma did not argue that this was an incorrect or unfair characterisation of his complaint.

At the outset, the RC observed that while Mr Sharma was neither a client nor a party to the proceedings against Dr Lim, he was funding the legal expenses and the information furnished by him was legitimately the subject matter of a complaint. Hence, the review by the RC related to the substance of Mr Sharma’s complaint and not his standing in the matter.

The RC also noted that “in so far as what constitutes professional misconduct, liability is dependent on an actual act or omission on the part of a solicitor which clearly arises from his/her personal conduct” and that the Complaint thus lacked details on the following matters: The respective roles of Mr Yeo SC and Ms Ho in the matter;4 and The terms of engagement between the SMC and WP, the amounts billed and the amounts that would have been due under the terms of engagement.5 This was in the context of Limb 2 of the Complaint.

The RC then sought clarification from WP to which WP replied as follows:6 Mr Yeo SC although the counsel in the proceedings against Dr Lim was not involved in drawing up the Bills of Costs or the taxation proceedings; The engagement by the SMC was on WP’s standard fee arrangement based on actual time spent by the solicitors on the files; and Each of WP’s bills were approved by the SMC and paid in full. Written confirmation was also provided by the SMC that the total amount billed by WP to the SMC was higher than the quantum claimed in the Bills of Costs and that the SMC had paid the bills in relation to the matters in full. Copies of the bills rendered by WP to the SMC were also provided to the RC. However, WP took the position that the contents of significant parts of its response to the RC were only made available to the RC to address its queries, and that no reference should be made to these parts in the written grounds of the RC’s decision. The RC was of the view that the material was covered by privilege which had been expressly reserved. It was therefore bound by the conditions imposed by WP. However, it was also of the view that it would be neither fair nor appropriate to consider such material in reaching a determination without setting out the import of the material. As it was precluded from setting out the import of the material, it decided not to consider it.

The RC then made the following findings and directions in relation to Limb 1 of the Complaint: There was no...

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13 cases
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