Law Society of Singapore v Chiong Chin May Selena

CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeChao Hick Tin JA
Judgment Date18 August 2005
Neutral Citation[2005] SGHC 148
Citation[2005] SGHC 148
Defendant CounselChung Ting Fai (Chung Tan and Partners)
Plaintiff CounselMimi Oh (Mimi Oh and Associates)
Published date19 August 2005
Docket NumberNotice of Motion No 38 of 2005 (Originating Summons No 428 of 2005)
Date18 August 2005
Subject MatterSolicitor practising as sole proprietor,Sections 83(2)(b), 83(2)(j) Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2001 Rev Ed),Show cause action,Legal Profession,Solicitor allowing non-lawyer to be co-signatory of firm's office and client accounts,Relevant sentencing considerations where solicitor's conduct not dishonest and where such conduct resulting from solicitor being medically unwell,Solicitor failing to prepare or maintain financial records or documents,Appropriate penalty to impose for solicitor's grossly improper conduct

18 August 2005

V K Rajah J (delivering the judgment of the court):

Factual background

1 On 28 July 2005, we suspended the respondent from practice for a period of one year. In addition, an undertaking was secured from the respondent confirming that she would not resume practice as a sole proprietor thereafter without leave of court (“the undertaking”). We now give the reasons for our decision.

2 The respondent graduated from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law in 1994. Performing consistently well in all her school and undergraduate examinations, her academic history is nothing less than impressive. The respondent was admitted as an advocate and solicitor on 29 April 1995 and immediately thereafter started practice as a legal associate in an established law firm. Soon after, she gave birth to her first child in 1996. Most unfortunately, she began to experience post-natal depression, lapses of concentration and severe memory loss. She had no alternative but to stop working and was subsequently warded in Adam Road Hospital, a mental health institute, for a period of two months. While warded, she underwent intensive electro-convulsive therapy. Although she never fully recovered from her depression, this did not deter her from proceeding to have two more children. She experienced manic-depressive psychosis throughout this period and the condition continues to persist. As a result, the respondent continues to be on medication such as Prozac, Lithium, Valium and Taridenzin.

3 Upon her discharge from the Adam Road Hospital, the respondent was employed for short periods of time in no less than eight law firms. As a consequence of her medical condition and her failure to take the prescribed medication, she was unable to hold onto a job for any substantial length of time.

4 She then decided to start her own law practice, urged by what she felt as a compelling need to contribute to her family’s financial well-being. She saw this as the only viable option open to her. She set up a sole practice under the name and style of M/s C M Chiong & Co (“the firm”) in April 2003.

5 The respondent’s husband, who was not a solicitor, acted as the guarantor for the firm’s bank accounts. He was required by the bank to be co-signatory to the firm’s office and client accounts and the respondent permitted this. This was of course in patent breach of the express wording of s 77(2) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2001 Rev Ed) (“LPA”).

6 The respondent was clearly not equipped professionally and/or mentally to cope with the rigours and demands of a sole proprietorship. After six months, she ceased practice. She did so precipitately without notifying any of her clients, the Law Society of Singapore (“the Law Society”) or the Registrar of the Supreme Court.

7 The Law Society subsequently received inquiries from various law firms and the firm’s clients, about the status of the respondent’s practice. The chief executive officer of the Law Society, Ms Yasho Dhara Dhoraisingam, managed to contact the respondent on 10 September 2003. This led to a startling revelation. In setting up the firm, the respondent had been completely oblivious to the accounting requirements mandated by the LPA, inter alia, through the Legal Profession (Solicitors’ Accounts) Rules (Cap 161, R 8, 1999 Rev Ed) (“Solicitors’ Accounts Rules”). None of the requisite financial records and accounts had been duly prepared or maintained.

8 On 15 September 2003, the Council of the Law Society resolved to intervene into the firm’s clients’ account pursuant to s 74 and para 1(1)(c) of the First Schedule of the LPA. The respondent was most contrite in response to this. In two letters both dated 24 September 2003, the respondent unequivocally admitted and acknowledged that she had failed to keep any financial records, stating that she was prepared to face the consequences for her transgressions. An Inquiry Committee (“IC”) was appointed. In a letter to the chairman of the IC dated 18 January 2004, the respondent pleaded:

I started my career with a bang when I landed the much-coveted position of a legal assistant in M/s Lee & Lee being the top 20 of the graduating batch of 1994.

I then gave birth to a child and suffered severe post-natal depression. I was warded in Adam’s [sic] Road Hospital for 2 months and underwent intensive electro-convulsive therapy. Ever since then, my life has gone downhill. Till to-date, I am still on medication. I suffer from severe memory loss and loss of focus and concentration. As such, I was unable to keep any job for more than a few months.

I always wanted the best for my children and therefore insisted on earning to contribute to the family’s income. So I kept trying until I became unemployable as I was job-hopping too much.

I then hit upon the idea of opening my own firm. I thought if I could do things at my own pace, maybe I can sustain my firm. However, things was [sic] not meant to be. I knew next to nothing about starting my own firm. I did not realise that I had to keep all the books and accounts. In fact, I didn’t even contribute CPF to my staff for which I almost got into trouble.

I may be incompetent, careless and naïve but one thing you can be assure [sic] of, I am totally honest. I have made [a] mess of my life by opening the firm. I borrowed money from banks and am now a bankrupt. I hope you will give me another chance. Right now, I realise that I can contribute to my family even if I am not earning. I can look after my children and bring them up properly. I am much at peace and apologise very deeply for what I have not done. Please forgive me.

[emphasis added]

9 In its report, the IC recognised that the respondent had not been dishonest. Nonetheless, this was not sufficient to exonerate her from the serious professional lapses in question. The IC recommended that the respondent be referred to a Disciplinary Committee (“DC”). The IC also noted that the respondent had since been declared a bankrupt and was therefore disqualified from practising. We ought, however, to point out for the record that her bankruptcy was in no way related to her professional dealings in connection with the firm.

The Disciplinary Committee proceeding

10 The Law Society proffered the following charges against the respondent before the DC:

First Charge

That you, Selena Chiong Chin May, between 23rd April 2003 to [sic] 5th September 2003, has [sic] contravened or failed to comply with Rule 11(1), (2), (4) of the Legal Profession (Solicitors’ Accounts) Rules in that you did not record in any client’s cash book or ledger or journal your dealings with client’s monies, which contravention or failure to comply with the said Rule warrants disciplinary action against you within the meaning of section 83(2)(b) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161, 2001 Revised Edition).

Second Charge

That you, Selena Chiong Chin May, between 23rd April 2003 to [sic] 5th September 2003, has [sic] contravened or failed to comply with Rule 11(2)(a)(i) of the Legal Profession (Solicitors’ Accounts) Rules, to keep or maintain properly written up cash books, ledgers and journals and such other books and accounts as may be necessary to show your dealings with clients’ monies and you have thereby contravened section 83(2)(b) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161, 2001 Revised Edition).

Third Charge

That you, Selena Chiong Chin May, authorized your husband, one Seet Swan Po, Andrew, who is/was not a lawyer at the material time between 23rd April 2003 to [sic] 5th September 2003, to be the co-signatory of both the office and client’s accounts of the firm and maintained by the firm with your practice as solicitor, and is therefore an unauthorised person under the Legal Profession Act to operate the bank accounts of both the office and clients’ account of the firm and you have thereby contravened section 77(2) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161, 2001 Revised Edition), which contravention warrants disciplinary action against you within the meaning of section 83(2)(j) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap. 161, 2001 Revised Edition).

11 The salient facts narrated in the Statement of Case are as follows:

2. At all material times, between 23rd April 2003 to [sic] 5th September 2003, the Respondent practising under the name of M/s C. M. Chiong & Co., did not maintain the following records:-

(i) Complete client’s account payment vouchers;

(ii) Ledger accounts of clients’ account;

(iii) Ledger listing of clients’ accounts;

(iv) Complete cheque butts for office and clients’ accounts.

3. The Respondent has also admitted to the Director of Professional Standards of the Law Society that her husband, one Mr. Seet Swan Po, Andrew, a non-lawyer, was made co-signatory to both the office and clients’ accounts of the firm.

10. By way of a letter dated 24th September 2003 to the Law Society, the Respondent admitted that she had acted in breach of Rule 11 of the Legal Profession (Solicitors’ Accounts) Rules.

12. At the hearing before the Inquiry Committee on the 5th March 2004, she confirmed and admitted to all the breaches of the Legal Profession (Solicitors’ Accounts) Rules as well.

12 On 18 January 2005, the respondent appeared before the DC. She confirmed the accuracy of the Statement of Case and admitted to all three charges. She however insisted that she had never “intentionally” contravened the provisions of the LPA or the Solicitors’ Accounts Rules; nor, she claimed, had she been “deceptive”. The respondent pleaded with the DC not to strike her off the roll. She expressed her fervent belief that she would, with medication and rest, eventually recover from her existing medical problems. The respondent also informed the DC that she would shortly be applying to discharge herself from her bankruptcy.

13 In a letter dated 19 January 2005 addressed to the DC, Assoc Prof Leslie Lim, a senior consultant psychiatrist and the head of the Department of Behavioural Medicine,...

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