The Law Society of Singapore v Manjit Singh s/o Kirpal Singh and another

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
JudgeChao Hick Tin JA
Judgment Date13 April 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] SGHC 95
Citation[2015] SGHC 95
Publication Date15 April 2015
SubjectLegal Profession,Disciplinary Proceedings,Professional Conduct,Breach
Date13 April 2015
Docket NumberOriginating Summons No 461 of 2014
Plaintiff CounselPateloo Eruthiyanathan Ashokan (KhattarWong LLP)
Defendant CounselThe 1st and 2nd respondents in person.
Chao Hick Tin JA (delivering the judgment of the court): Introduction

This is an application by the Law Society of Singapore praying that Manjit Singh s/o Kirpal Singh and Sree Govind Menon, the respondents herein (“the 1st Respondent” and “the 2nd Respondent” respectively or collectively “the Respondents”), be sanctioned under s 83(1) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2009 Rev Ed) (“the Act”).

The Respondents were partners of M/s Manjit Govind & Partners (“MGP”). The main charge against them relates to payments, amounting in total to $1.8m, made by a former client to their wives and the Respondents’ refusal to return the said sum of money. The cheques were deposited into the Respondents’ joint accounts with their respective wives. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced against the Respondents pursuant to a complaint lodged by the former client to the Law Society of Singapore (“the Law Society”). The Disciplinary Tribunal constituted under the Act found that cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action under s 83(2)(h) of the Act was made out.

The issue before us is whether due cause for disciplinary action within the meaning of s 83(2)(h) of the Act has been established in relation to the charges. If due cause is shown, the consequential issue that needs to be decided is the appropriate sanction to be meted out against the Respondents under s 83(1) of the Act in respect of the charges preferred against each of them.

Facts Parties to the complaint

The 1st Respondent was admitted as an advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore in 1977. The 2nd Respondent was admitted in 1998. At the relevant time, the Respondents were the only two partners of MGP. Since April 2014 they have ceased to practise, having not taken out the required practising certificates. The complainant is Ms Adeline Bernadette Rankine (“Ms Rankine”) who was, at the material time, a client of MGP. The Law Society is the applicant in the present proceedings.

Background to the complaint

The critical factual issue in these disciplinary proceedings is whether the sum of $1.8m paid by Ms Rankine to the Respondents’ wives was a gift (as alleged by the Respondents) or a measure taken to safekeep her money to meet her future legal fees (as alleged by Ms Rankine). The Disciplinary Tribunal found that it was the latter. Therefore, the question before us is whether this finding of fact by the Disciplinary Tribunal was “clearly against the weight of evidence” (see Law Society of Singapore v Lim Cheong Peng [2006] 4 SLR(R) 360 (“Lim Cheong Peng”) at [13]). We ought, at this juncture, to mention that the Respondents continued in the present proceedings to assert that the President of the Disciplinary Tribunal (“the President” and “the Tribunal” respectively) was biased against them and also made a further assertion that there was no due process in the Tribunal’s hearing against them. The context of these assertions will be become clearer after we set out the material facts and the other proceedings which the Respondents had instituted even before the Tribunal heard the case in relation to the charges brought against them.

In 1996, Ms Rankine started cohabiting with Mr Tan Sri Amin Shah (“Mr Amin”), a Malaysian businessman. This relationship came to an end in August 2009. Ms Rankine then decided to sell her property at 22 Joan Road, Singapore 298901 (“Joan Road property”) and live off the proceeds of the sale. She approached the 1st Respondent for legal advice as she was concerned that Mr Amin might become difficult about the breakup and would create obstacles to prevent the sale of the Joan Road property.

Ms Rankine’s concerns materialised. In October 2009, a British Virgin Islands company controlled by Mr Amin, Starboard Consultants Pte Ltd (“Starboard”), lodged a caveat against the Joan Road property. The caveat was eventually discharged on 19 February 2010 and the High Court permitted the release of the net sale proceeds, which amounted to $6.9m, to Ms Rankine. She received a cheque for $5m at MGP’s offices and authorised a payment of $50,000 to Ms Faridah, her personal assistant, to whom she owed outstanding wages.

On 23 February 2010, the 1st Respondent handed Ms Rankine a cheque for $1.8m. Ms Rankine then issued two cheques, one each in favour of the wives of the Respondents, which in total amounted to $1.8m. That same evening, Ms Rankine had an expensive dinner with the Respondents, Ms Faridah and one Terence Evitt, who had done some work in relation to the inspection of documents by Starboard. The 1st Respondent paid for the meal.

In April 2010, Ms Rankine, who then had some concern as to whether MGP was acting in her best interest, instructed another law firm, Eldan Law LLP, to take over the conduct of the proceedings involving Starboard and another matter. On 28 September 2010, Eldan Law LLP expressly raised the matter of the two cheques paid to the Respondents’ wives and asked for an account of the monies. Some days later, on 4 November 2010, Ms Rankine wrote directly to the Respondents requesting the return of the $1.8m:1

Dear Manjit and Govind,

On your advice and for safekeeping, I made out 2 Citibank cheques to your respective wives Ms Chew Lai Ling and Ms Sarita d/o Prakash Gupta on 23 February 2010.

The sum of $200,000 was made to Ms Sarita and the sum of $1.6 million was made to Ms Chew Lai Ling.

I would appreciate if you could arrange for the total sum of $1.8m to be returned to me within 7 days by way of cheque addressed to me and sent to my solicitors M/s Eldan Law LLP.

Thanks.

Regards,

Bernadette

On 15 November 2011, on Ms Rankine’s instructions, Engelin Teh Practice LLC issued letters of demand to the Respondents and their wives for the return of the $1.8m.2 The Respondents responded by asserting claims against Ms Rankine for her statements about the $1.8m. The matter was eventually settled on 23 November 2012 (see [15] below).

The complaint and charge

On 21 December 2010, Ms Rankine lodged a complaint against the Respondents with the Law Society. She alleged that the Respondents’ wives had kept $1.8m of her money which had been transferred by way of two cheques in the amounts of $1.6m and $200,000 to the 1st Respondent’s wife and 2nd Respondent’s wife respectively. She explained that the $1.8m was paid over to the wives on the Respondents’ advice for the purposes of safekeeping and future legal fees.

The complaint was referred to an Inquiry Committee which recommended a formal investigation by a Disciplinary Tribunal. The charge preferred against the 1st Respondent (“the 1st Charge”) read as follows:

That the [1st Respondent], on or about the 23rd day of February 2010, advised the Complainant to make payment by issuing two (2) cheques, which she then issued, for the total sum of $1.8m (“the said money”) in favour of the wives of the 1st and 2nd Respondents in the form of a cheque to [the wife of the 1st Respondent] for the sum of $1,600,000 and the other cheque to [the wife of the 2nd Respondent] for the sum of $200,000 which cheques were cleared, so as to conceal and avoid the risk of having the said sum of money frozen through litigation and for the safekeeping of the Complainant’s said money and to meet the Complainant’s future legal fees and thereafter refusing to account for and to return the same to the Complainant when demanded by the Complainant and the [1st Respondent], is thereby guilty of misconduct unbefitting of an Advocate and Solicitor as an officer of the Supreme Court or as a member of an Honourable Profession under s 83(2)(h) of [the Act].

The charge preferred against the 2nd Respondent was that he agreed with the advice given to Ms Rankine by the 1st Respondent to make payments in the manner described above by issuing two cheques in favour of their wives (“the 2nd Charge”).

On 9 February 2012, the then Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong (“Chan CJ”) appointed a disciplinary tribunal comprising of Mr L P Thean and Mr Tan Chuan Thye to hear and investigate the matter. The Respondents objected to the appointment of Mr Thean. On 20 February 2012, Mr G P Selvam was appointed by Chan CJ as Mr Thean’s replacement. Again, the Respondents raised objections to Mr Selvam’s appointment but Chan CJ directed that Mr Selvam’s appointment as President of the Tribunal would stand.

The first judicial review proceedings

On 9 March 2012, the Respondents filed Originating Summons No 443 of 2012 seeking leave to apply for judicial review of Chan CJ’s decision to appoint Mr Selvam as the President of the Tribunal. On 31 May 2012, the High Court dismissed the application (see Re Manjit Singh s/o Kirpal Singh and another [2012] 4 SLR 81). On 6 November 2012, the appeal against the High Court’s decision was dismissed by the Court of Appeal (see Manjit Singh s/o Kirpal Singh and another v AG [2013] 2 SLR 844 (“Manjit Singh No 1 (CA)”)).

As mentioned, a settlement was eventually reached on 23 November 2012 between Ms Rankine and the Respondents in relation to their respective civil claims against each other (see above at [10]). As part of the settlement, the sum of $1.8m was returned by the Respondents to Ms Rankine without admission of liability. We should, at this juncture, point out that Ms Rankine wrote to the Law Society on 23 November 2012 withdrawing her complaint. In that letter, she also stated that she did not wish to participate in any hearing relating to her complaint (“the Withdrawal Letter”). This letter was found by the Tribunal to have been issued pursuant to the settlement reached between the parties.3 This finding was vigorously disputed by the Respondents who pointed out that the requirement to withdraw the complaint was never mentioned in the settlement agreement. In our view, and in any case, it is not necessary to resolve this dispute (although we would add that, in our opinion, the finding of the Tribunal is consistent with all the...

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