Law Society of Singapore v Seah Li Ming Edwin

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Judgment Date22 March 2007
Docket NumberOriginating Summons No 2272 of
Date22 March 2007

High Court

Chan Sek Keong CJ

,

Andrew Phang Boon Leong JA

and

Kan Ting Chiu J

Originating Summons No 2272 of 2006 (Summons No 5913 of 2006)

Law Society of Singapore
Plaintiff
and
Seah Li Ming Edwin and another
Defendant

Wong Siew Hong (Infinitus Law Corporation) and Ganesh S Ramanathan (Karuppan Chettiar & Partners) for the applicant

Subhas Anandan and Sunil Sudheesan (Harry Elias Partnership) for the respondents.

Bolton v Law Society [1994] 1 WLR 512 (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Ahmad Khalis bin Abdul Ghani [2006] 4 SLR (R) 308; [2006] 4 SLR 308 (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Chung Ting Fai [2006] 4 SLR (R) 587; [2006] 4 SLR 587 (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Ravindra Samuel [1999] 1 SLR (R) 266; [1999] 1 SLR 696 (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Subbiah Pillai [2004] 2 SLR (R) 447; [2004] 2 SLR 447 (distd)

Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2001 Rev Ed) ss 83 (1), 83 (2) (h) (consd);ss 83, 83 (2) (b), 90, 93, 94 (1), 98

Legal Profession–Show cause action–Lawyers acting in conflict of interests –Lawyers enabling unauthorised person to undertake or carry on legal work at premises –Whether lawyers' conduct amounting to misconduct unbefitting advocate and solicitor –Appropriate sentence in light of lawyers' public service–Sections 83 (1), 83 (2) (h) Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2001 Rev Ed)

The respondents were advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore of some eight and ten years' standing and were partners at M/s Edwin Seah & K S Teo (“the Firm”). The Firm acted for a group of motor workshops and represented their customers in accident claims involving property damage and/or personal injury suffered by these customers.

Pursuant to one such referral, one Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao (“the Complainant”), who was involved in a road traffic accident involving his motorcycle and two other vehicles, visited the Firm and was attended to by one Mr Victor Chew Kia Heng (“Mr Chew”) - a representative from the workshops, who regularly attended at the Firm's premises where he would review the files pertaining to the workshop's customers. The Complainant narrated the events surrounding the incident and gave his instructions to Mr Chew. A letter signed by the second respondent confirming representation was later sent to the Complainant. A few days later, the Firm informed the Complainant's insurer that it was acting for the rider of the other motorcycle involved in the same aforesaid accident, claiming damages against the Complainant. A writ of summons was subsequently filed against the Complainant by the first respondent. The Complainant felt that he had been prejudiced and lodged a complaint against the respondents.

Two charges were preferred against the respondents under s 83 (2) (h) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2001 Rev Ed) for: (a) acting in conflict of interest; and (b) enabling an unauthorised person to undertake or carry on legal work at their premises. The disciplinary committee of the Law Society of Singapore found that cause of sufficient gravity existed for disciplinary action to be taken against both respondents and took out the present application to make absolute an order to show cause.

Held, suspending both respondents from practice for 18 months:

(1) There was a larger public interest that underscored the rules proscribing a conflict of interests and the practice of law by unauthorised persons. These were, respectively, to maintain the trust and confidence between lawyer and client as well as to ensure that clients received legal advice only from those duly qualified and authorised to carry on legal work. The legitimacy of the law in general and the confidence of clients in their lawyers in particular were of fundamental importance and would be undermined if such rules were not observed: at [24] and [25].

(2) The respondents' conduct undoubtedly (and adversely) impacted on the public interest aspect of the profession and had to be duly dealt with by the imposition of a sanction appropriate to the general and specific elements of deterrence. However, without compromising the public interest element, this concern with deterrence had to be as far as practicable be tempered by due consideration of the mitigating factors unique to the respondents, such as their public service contributions to the community in the legal and non-legal sphere: at [28] to [31].

[Observation: These proceedings constituted a stark reminder of the expense and trouble that arose from adopting a lax view of the strict ethical codes of conduct that governed the legal profession and provided a timely reminder to practising lawyers to familiarise themselves with the basic rules of professional conduct, as well as to either seek counsel or to err on the side of caution when in doubt: at [34].]

Andrew Phang Boon Leong JA

(delivering the grounds of decision of the court):

Introduction

1 This was an application by the Law Society of Singapore (“the Law Society”) pursuant to s 94 (1) read with s 98 of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2001 Rev Ed) (“the Act”) for the respondents to show cause as to why they should not be dealt with under s 83 (2) (h)of the Act. Having heard the submissions of the respective parties, we granted the application at the conclusion of the hearing and ordered both respondents to be suspended from practice for a period of 18 months. We now give the detailed grounds for our decision.

The charges

2 Four charges were initially preferred against the respondents. These were subsequently consolidated by the Law Society into two charges, which read as follows:

First Charge:

That [the respondents], each of them as partners of Messrs Edwin Seah & K S Teo (“the Firm”), having acted for one Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao in or about September 2003 in relation to a road traffic accident along Sembawang Road on 29th August 2003, thereafter acted for one Mr Nanthakumar Baduil against the said Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao in the same matter while the said Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao was still a client of the Firm, and they have each of them thereby contravened Rule 31 (1) of the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules and each of the Respondents are guilty of misconduct unbefitting an Advocate and Solicitor as an officer of the Supreme Court or as a member of an honourable profession within the meaning of Section 83 (2) (h) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161).

Second Charge:

That [the respondents], each of them as partners of Messrs Edwin Seah & K S Teo (“the Firm”) on or about September 2003, knowing that one Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao was to attend at the Firm's premises with a view to instructing the Firm to act for the said Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao in relation to a road traffic accident along Sembawang Road on 29th August 2003 and being aware that one Mr Victor Chew Kia Heng would be present at the meeting, did not attend the said meeting, thereby leaving the said Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao to be attended by the said Mr Victor Chew Kia Heng, an unauthorized person within the meaning of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161) and thereby enabled the said Mr Victor Chew Kia Heng to undertake or carry on legal work in the premises of the Firm, to wit, by interviewing and photographing the said Mr Alvin Yeo Ying Bao, when the said Mr Victor Chew Kia Heng was not an employee of the Firm nor under the direct and immediate control of the Respondents, and each of the Respondents are thereby guilty of misconduct unbefitting an Advocate and Solicitor as an officer of the Supreme Court or as a member of an honourable profession within the meaning of Section 83 (2) (h) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161).

3 It would be apposite to highlight the salient parts of s 83 of the Act, which read as follows:

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