Law Society of Singapore v Dhanwant Singh

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeSundaresh Menon CJ,Andrew Phang Boon Leong JA,Steven Chong JA
Docket NumberOriginating Summons No 4 of 2019
Date20 December 2019

[2019] SGHC 290

Court of Three Judges

Sundaresh Menon CJ, Andrew Phang Boon Leong JA and Steven Chong JA

Originating Summons No 4 of 2019

Law Society of Singapore
and
Dhanwant Singh

Adam Muneer Yusoff Maniam, Sam Yi Ting, Toh Ming Min, Chia Jun JieandCharmaine Yap Yun Ning (Drew & Napier LLC) for the applicant;

S Magintharan, B Uthayachanran, James Liew Boon KweeandBenedict Tan Yixun (Essex LLC) for the respondent.

Case(s) referred to

41B Lorong 17 Geylang, Singapore 388564, Re [2007] 3 SLR(R) 729; [2007] 3 SLR 729 (folld)

Angliss Singapore Pte Ltd v PP [2006] 4 SLR(R) 653; [2006] 4 SLR 653 (refd)

Aqua Art Pte Ltd v Goodman Development (S) Pte Ltd [2011] 2 SLR 865 (distd)

AG v Ting Choon Meng [2017] 1 SLR 373 (folld)

Gan Chai Bee Anne v PP [2019] 4 SLR 838 (refd)

Kong Hoo (Pte) Ltd v PP [2019] 1 SLR 1131 (folld)

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

Law Society of Singapore v Andre Ravindran Saravanapavan Arul [2011] 4 SLR 1184 (distd)

Law Society of Singapore v Chan Chun Hwee Allan [2018] 4 SLR 859 (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Chiong Chin May Selena [2005] 4 SLR(R) 320; [2005] 4 SLR 320 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore v Dhanwant Singh [1996] 1 SLR(R) 1, (HC) [1996] 1 SLR 429, HC (refd)

Law Society of Singapore, The v Dhanwant Singh [2019] SGDT 1, HC (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Nathan Edmund [1998] 2 SLR(R) 905; [1998] 3 SLR 414 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore v Ng Bock Hoh Dixon [2012] 1 SLR 348 (refd)

Law Society of Singapore v Tay Choon Leng John [2012] 3 SLR 150 (distd)

Law Society of Singapore v Tan Phuay Khiang [2007] 3 SLR(R) 477; [2007] 3 SLR 477 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore v Tay Eng Kwee Edwin [2007] 4 SLR(R) 171; [2007] 4 SLR 171 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore, The v Troy Yeo Siew Chye [2018] SGDT 4 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore v Wan Hui Hong James [2013] 3 SLR 221 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore v Wong Sin Yee [2018] 5 SLR 1261 (folld)

Law Society of Singapore v Yeo Siew Chye Troy [2019] 5 SLR 358 (refd)

MCH International Pte Ltd v YG Group Pte Ltd [2019] 2 SLR 837 (folld)

Mohd Akebal s/o Ghulam Jilani v PP [2020] 1 SLR 266 (folld)

PP v Jurong Country Club [2019] 5 SLR 554 (folld)

PP v Low Ji Qing [2019] 5 SLR 769 (folld)

PP v NF [2006] 4 SLR(R) 849; [2006] 4 SLR 849 (folld)

PP v Tan Cheng Yew [2013] 1 SLR 1095 (refd)

PP v Yong Heng Yew [1996] 3 SLR(R) 22; [1996] 3 SLR 566 (refd)

Tan Cheng Bock v AG [2017] 2 SLR 850 (folld)

Teo Siew Peng v Guok Sing Ong [1981–1982] SLR(R) 699; [1982–1983] SLR 128 (folld)

Legislation referred to

Bankruptcy Act (Cap 20, 2009 Rev Ed) s 77(1)

Central Provident Fund Act (Cap 36, 2013 Rev Ed) s 58(b)

Conveyancing and Law of Property (Conveyancing) Rules 2011 (S 391/2011) rr 2(2)(a), 2(2)(c), 4(1), 5(1) (consd); rr 2(2)(b), 2(2)(d)–2(2)(l), 4(3), 5(2)–5(6)

Conveyancing and Law of Property Act (Cap 61, 1994 Rev Ed)

Evidence Act (Cap 5, 1970 Rev Ed) s 92(d)

Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2009 Rev Ed) ss 83(1), 83(2)(b), 83(2)(h) (consd); s 98

Legal Profession (Solicitors' Accounts) Rules (Cap 161, R 8, 1999 Rev Ed) rr 2(1), 3(1A)

Legal Profession — Disciplinary proceedings — Professional conduct — Breach — Conveyancing account — Solicitor placing money from conveyancing transaction in client account — Whether money should be placed in conveyancing account — Whether cause of sufficient gravity shown — Principles governing conveyancing transactions — Conveyancing and Law of Property (Conveyancing) Rules 2011 (S 391/2011)

Legal Profession — Disciplinary proceedings — Sanctions — Law Society drawing attention to other pending proceedings against solicitor — Whether pending proceedings an aggravating factor — Principles governing imposition of sanctions

Legal Profession — Disciplinary proceedings — Solicitor agreeing oral evidence need not be called — Tribunal proceeding to render decision — Whether solicitor prejudiced by Tribunal's decision declining to hear oral evidence — Whether appropriate sanctions affected by Tribunal's decision — Principles governing conduct of disciplinary proceedings — Principles governing standard of proof in sentencing

Statutory Interpretation — Construction of statute — Purposive approach — Solicitor disbursing money from client account — Option to purchase ultimately not exercised — Sale and purchase agreement ultimately not executed — Whether money “conveyancing money” if not paid pursuant to sale and purchase agreement — Principles governing conveyancing rules — Principles governing lawyers' ethical and professional rules — Conveyancing and Law of Property (Conveyancing) Rules 2011 (S 391/2011) — Legal Profession (Solicitors' Accounts) Rules (Cap 161, R 8, 1999 Rev Ed)

Facts

The respondent, Mr Dhanwant Singh (“the Respondent”), was a solicitor representing the sellers (“the Vendors”) of a property (“the Property”). RDW International Pte Ltd (“the Complainant”) was interested in purchasing the Property and transferred $100,000 to S K Kumar Law Practice (“the Respondent's firm”). The Respondent did not place the $100,000 into his firm's conveyancing account. Instead, he placed the $100,000 in his firm's client account and then disbursed the moneys to his clients, the Vendors. It transpired that the Vendors were facing bankruptcy applications, which the Complainant was never informed about. Despite letters to the Respondent to return the $100,000 or to place the moneys into the firm's conveyancing account, the Respondent refused to do so. The option to purchase was ultimately not exercised. The Vendors kept the $100,000 and were adjudged bankrupts. Neither the Respondent nor the Vendors had made any restitution to the Complainant.

The Law Society of Singapore (“the Law Society”) submitted that the Respondent's failure to deposit the moneys into his firm's conveyancing account was a breach of the Conveyancing and Law of Property (Conveyancing) Rules 2011 (S 391/2011) (“the Conveyancing Rules”). This would have been a consequential breach of r 3(1A) of the Legal Profession (Solicitors' Accounts) Rules (Cap 161, R 8, 1999 Rev Ed) (“the LP(SA)R”). Accordingly, the Law Society charged the Respondent with improper practice as an advocate and solicitor under s 83(2)(b) of the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2009 Rev Ed) (“the Act”) and, in the alternative, for misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor within the meaning of s 83(2)(h) of the Act.

Conversely, the Respondent claimed that the Complainant had allegedly agreed to disburse the $100,000 to the Vendors directly (“the Disbursement Agreement”) and for the moneys to constitute consideration for the extension of the option's expiry date (“the Consideration Agreement”).

Before the Disciplinary Tribunal (“the Tribunal”), the parties initially agreed that no oral testimony needed to be called. The Respondent also conceded that the $100,000 would constitute part of the purchase price and that the sole question was the legal one of whether the $100,000 amounted to “conveyancing money” under r 2(2)(a) of the Conveyancing Rules. Under rr 4(1) and 5(1), “conveyancing money” was required to have been placed in a conveyancing account. However, despite the Respondent's earlier concessions, he renewed his claims in his written submissions as to the alleged existence of the Disbursement Agreement and the Consideration Agreement.

The Tribunal found that the Respondent's liability on both charges had been established and that cause of sufficient gravity had been shown. The Law Society then applied for the Respondent to be sanctioned under s 83(1) of the Act. As to the appropriate sanction, the Law Society pointed to the fact that the Respondent's breach had caused financial loss, to the Respondent's prior antecedent in Law Society of Singapore v Dhanwant Singh[1996] 1 SLR(R) 1 (“Dhanwant Singh”), to two ongoing complaints against him, and to his seniority given that he began practicing in 1986.

The Respondent sought to revive his claims as to the Disbursement and Consideration Agreements asserting that the Tribunal's decision not to hear oral evidence had deprived him of a fair hearing. He also claimed that the $100,000 would only constitute “conveyancing money” under r 2(2)(a) of the Conveyancing Rules when a sale and purchase agreement had materialised. In the alternative, the Respondent suggested he had a bona fide belief that the $100,000 was not conveyancing money and this alleged lack of mens rea should absolve him of liability.

Held, imposing a fine of $50,000 on the Respondent:

Breach of the Conveyancing Rules and the LP(SA)R

(1) The Respondent was not prejudiced. The Tribunal's findings were not premised on the absence of the alleged agreements. Rather, its comments were made by way of obiter dicta. It had stated that even an acceptance of the Respondent's account of the agreements would not have absolved him of liability. Nevertheless, given the Tribunal's approach not to call oral evidence, the benefit of the doubt was extended to him and it was assumed that the alleged agreements did exist: at [58] and [59].

(2) Even proceeding on assumptions favourable to the Respondent, the issue remained whether the $100,000 was “conveyancing money” under the Conveyancing Rules. A duty was imposed once conveyancing moneys reached a solicitor's hands and the transacting parties' contract between themselves could not absolve a solicitor of his duty. This duty arose as a matter of statute and not contract. An exception to the duty could only arise under exhaustively stipulated conditions in rr 5(2)–5(6), which the Respondent could not avail of in his case: at [60], [62], [64] and [65].

(3) The principles of statutory interpretation applied with equal force to legislative provisions or regulations concerning lawyers' ethical and professional duties: at [77].

(4) Under the first step of statutory interpretation, the court would ascertaine the possible interpretations having...

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