Law Society of Singapore v Chia Choon Yang

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
JudgeSundaresh Menon CJ,Steven Chong JA,Chao Hick Tin SJ
Judgment Date31 July 2018
Neutral Citation[2018] SGHC 174
Citation[2018] SGHC 174
Plaintiff CounselLiow Wang Wu, Joseph (Straits Law Practice LLC)
Date31 July 2018
Subject MatterLegal Profession,Grossly improper conduct,Show cause action,Disciplinary proceedings,Appropriate sanction
Published date03 August 2018
Defendant CounselLim Kheng Yan Molly SC and Lim Haan Hui (Wong Tan & Molly Lim LLC)
Hearing Date02 May 2018
Docket NumberOriginating Summons 7 of 2017
Sundaresh Menon CJ (delivering the grounds of decision of the court): Introduction

This is the application of the Law Society of Singapore (“the Law Society”) for Mr Chia Choon Yang of Chia Choon Yang Law Practice (“the Respondent”) to show cause as to why he should not be made to suffer punishment under s 83(1) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2009 Rev Ed) (“LPA”). After hearing the parties’ submissions, we found that due cause was made out and ordered that the Respondent be suspended from practice for a period of 15 months from the date of our decision. We now set out the detailed reasons for our decision.

Facts

The Respondent was admitted to the bar on 12 November 1969, and was practising as a sole proprietor at the time of the offence. At the time of the show cause proceedings before us, he did not hold a practicing certificate. He had voluntarily suspended his practice from April 2017.

In April 2016, a complaint was lodged against the Respondent for falsely attesting in a notarial certificate that he had witnessed the signing of a power of attorney (“the POA”), when he had not in fact done so. For this, he was charged with grossly improper conduct in the discharge of his professional duty under s 83(2)(b) of the LPA (“the Charge”):

CHARGE

You, Chia Choon Yang of Chia Choon Yang Law Practice, an advocate and solicitor, while exercising the functions of a notary public, falsely attested and testified in your Notarial Certificate dated 14th July 2015 that New Eastern (1971) Pte Ltd, a Singapore registered company had issued the attached certified original power of attorney dated 14 July 2015 which was signed by its duly authorized officer Loy Teu Wee (“Loy”), director, as witnessed by you, when in fact the said power of attorney was not signed in your presence by the said Loy, and accordingly, you are guilty of gross[ly] improper conduct in the discharge of your professional duty within the meaning of section 83(2)(b) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161, Rev Ed 2009).

For the same act, the Respondent also faced an alternative charge of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor as an officer of the Supreme Court under s 83(2)(h) of the LPA (“the Alternative Charge”).

Before the Disciplinary Tribunal (“the Tribunal”), the Respondent did not contest the charges, and he unreservedly admitted to the statement of facts detailing his misconduct. On 14 September 2017, the Tribunal rendered its decision and determined that there was sufficient cause for disciplinary action under s 83 of the LPA.

The charges

The facts pertaining to the charges are simple and undisputed. On 14 July 2015, Mr David Li (“Mr Li”), a client of the Respondent, brought a document to the Respondent’s office. On the face of it, the document was a POA granted to Mr Li by a company known as New Eastern (1971) Private Limited (“New Eastern”). Notably, when it was presented to the Respondent, the POA evidently already bore the signature of one of New Eastern’s directors, Mr Loy Teu Wee (“Mr Loy”). The POA was in the Chinese language and purportedly conferred wide-ranging powers on Mr Li, stating as follows when translated into the English language:

POWER OF ATTORNEY

This is hereby to authorize David Li I/C No. SXXXXXXXB to handle various matters relating to the Principal NEW EASTERN (1971) PTE LTD on behalf of the Principal. The Power of Attorney shall come into force from this present day. The Power of Attorney is transferrable, and enables the agent to act on behalf of the Principal to sign contract, decide judicial proceedings and arbitrations, etc.

Mr Li told the Respondent that two other persons had witnessed Mr Loy signing the POA, which was to be used in the People’s Republic of China for business purposes, and thus needed to be notarised and then legalised by the Chinese embassy in Singapore. The Respondent accepted Mr Li’s representations and accordingly appended his signature and affixed his seal of office as a notary public under the words “Notarized / Witnessed by” on the POA.

The Respondent then prepared a notarial certificate stating that he had witnessed Mr Loy signing the POA, and presented it to the Singapore Academy of Law, which authenticated the Respondent’s signature. The notarial certificate was subsequently presented to the Chinese embassy for further authentication. It stated as follows:

TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME

I CHIA CHOON YANG NOTARY PUBLIC duly appointed in the Republic of Singapore DO HEREBY CERTIFY THAT

NEW EASTERN (1971) PTE LTD a Singapore registered company has issued as attached a certified original of a Power of Attorney dated 14 July 2015 signed by the duly authorised officer Loy Teu Wee Director and witnessed by me as notary public in the Republic of Singapore appointing its representative named therein to act as stated.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF I the said Notary Public have hereunto subscribed my name and affixed my seal of office this 14th day of July 2015.

Slightly less than a year later, on 20 April 2016, a complaint was lodged by a director of New Eastern against the Respondent for falsely attesting that he had witnessed Mr Loy signing the POA. Mr Li had purportedly used the POA to enter into a supply contract with a Chinese company without New Eastern’s knowledge or consent.

The Respondent admitted that by his conduct, he had falsely represented that he had verified the identity of the signatory (namely, Mr Loy) and that Mr Loy had signed the POA before him.

Proceedings before the Tribunal

In its report, the Tribunal considered only the Charge, finding that it was unnecessary to consider the Alternative Charge because both charges dealt with the same incident. The Tribunal noted that the Respondent was deeply remorseful for having done what he did, and also noted that this was his first disciplinary case in his “almost half century in the profession”. But the Tribunal nevertheless concluded that the Respondent’s misconduct was so serious as to warrant disciplinary action under s 83 of the LPA, observing as follows:

While the Tribunal is of the view that the Respondent is genuinely remorseful, and his conduct after the complaint was made has been entirely honourable, thereby allowing this disciplinary hearing to proceed expeditiously, the Respondent’s lapse was a serious one. A Notary Public plays an important role and a failure to discharge such role with sufficient diligence can give rise to serious consequences including the perpetration of fraudulent acts. There was therefore a public interest that had been adversely affected.

Our decision

We find, and it is undisputed, that the Respondent was guilty of grossly improper conduct, the gravity of which must not be understated. A notary public has an important role in assuring the authenticity of documents and the identities of the signatories. The failure to properly discharge such a role compromises public confidence in notaries public and inevitably in the legal profession as a whole. Indeed, such is the severity with which the court treats cases of false attestation that a solicitor who “falsely attests to witnessing the signature of a person on a document commits a disciplinary offence even if he is certain that the document was signed by that person” [emphasis added] (Law Society of Singapore v Sum Chong Mun and another [2017] 4 SLR 707 (“Sum Chong Mun”) at [42]).

Appropriate sanction

As to the appropriate sanction, the Law Society submitted that actual harm had been caused by the Respondent’s misconduct because the POA had been used by Mr Li to cause New Eastern to enter into a contract. It also submitted that the fact that the Respondent had voluntarily ceased practice did not mean that the court ought not to order a period of suspension. In this regard, the Law Society initially sought a suspension for a period not exceeding two years but later submitted that a suspension period of one year would be sufficient. In support of its submission for a suspension, it relied on two cases, namely, Sum Chong Mun and Law Society of Singapore v Low Seow Juan [1996] SGDSC 4 (“Low Seow Juan”). We examine these cases in greater detail below (see [32]–[34] and [45]–[46] below), and it suffices to note here that both those cases concerned misconduct involving false attestation, for which the errant solicitors were sanctioned with periods of suspension ranging from one to two years.

On the other hand, the Respondent submitted that a censure or a fine would be adequate. He argued that a period of suspension would be excessive, highlighting his deep remorse and the clean record that he had maintained over the course of several decades. He also claimed that there was no dishonesty in his misconduct, and that he only received a total of $75 in notarial fees. He further averred that he had no reason to disbelieve Mr Li, whom he had previously dealt with. He also submitted that a suspension order would be excessive because he had voluntarily suspended his practice since April 2017, and that this self-imposed suspension (which had lasted more than a year by the time of his show cause proceedings before this court) would otherwise be wholly overlooked and attract no credit at all. If a term of suspension was to be ordered, the Respondent submitted that the period should be less than one year.

At the outset, we disagreed with the Respondent that his offence did not involve any dishonesty. It has been noted that the submission of a false document by an errant solicitor with the intention that it be acted on involves an element of deceit (Rajasooria v Disciplinary Committee [1955] MLJ 65 at 70). The Respondent’s act of false attestation in this case necessarily involved dishonesty given that he had asserted a fact or a state of affairs that he knew was untrue. Even on the assumption that the Respondent had no reason to disbelieve Mr Li’s assurance that Mr Loy had signed the...

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