Ong Jane Rebecca v PricewaterhouseCoopers and others

JurisdictionSingapore
JudgeLai Siu Chiu J
Judgment Date16 May 2012
Neutral Citation[2012] SGHC 106
Plaintiff CounselWoo Tchi Chu and Grace Tan (Robert Wang & Woo LLP)
Docket NumberSuit No 156 of 2006 and Summons No 9 of 2012
Date16 May 2012
Hearing Date17 October 2011,13 October 2011,18 October 2011,14 October 2011,20 October 2011
Subject MatterSetting aside,Proceedings at Trial,Judgment given in absence of party,Civil Procedure
Year2012
Citation[2012] SGHC 106
Defendant CounselChandra Mohan and Gillian Hauw (Rajah & Tann LLP),Ang Cheng Hock SC, Ramesh Selvaraj and Tan Kai Liang (Allen & Gledhill LLP)
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Published date25 May 2012
Lai Siu Chiu J: Introduction

On 20 October 2011, I dismissed the claim of Jane Rebecca Ong (“the plaintiff”) and awarded judgment to PricewaterhouseCoopers (“the first defendant”), and Arul Chew & Partners (“the third defendant”) on their respective counterclaims when the plaintiff, despite my urging, refused to continue with the trial for this suit. I further dismissed the plaintiff’s action against PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (“the second defendant”). The plaintiff has appealed against my decision in Civil Appeal No 140 of 2011 (“the first appeal”).

This suit was another episode in the litigation saga that Jane Rebecca Ong (“the plaintiff”) first commenced twenty one years ago in Originating Summons No 939 of 1991 (“the OS”) when she sued Lim Lie Hoa (“Mdm Lim”) her then mother-in-law and her then estranged husband Ong Siauw Tjoan (“ST Ong”) for one-twelfth share in the estate of Mdm Lim’s husband Ong Seng King (“the deceased”). The deceased was a very wealthy Indonesian who had died intestate on 22 October 1974 leaving substantial assets in numerous countries including Singapore; ST Ong was/is a beneficiary of the deceased’s estate (“the estate”).

The OS was converted to a writ of summons pursuant to an order of court dated 4 April 1994. The plaintiff’s claim was based on a deed of assignment dated 29 August 1991 (“the deed of assignment”) whereby ST Ong assigned to her half of his one-sixth share in the estate. Earlier, ST Ong had executed a deed of release dated 29 June 1989 (“the deed of release”) acknowledging that he had received £1,018,000 and US$150,000 in full and final settlement of his interest in the estate.

The plaintiff, as a litigant in person in the OS emerged victorious when on 16 July 1996, Justice Chao Hick Tin (“Chao J”) ruled in her favour (see Ong Jane Rebecca v Lim Lie Hoa and Another [1996] SGHC 140) and held inter alia that: (i) the deed of release executed by ST Ong was void and unenforceable; (ii) the deed of assignment was valid and the plaintiff was entitled to one-twelfth share of the estate. Chao J ordered that an inquiry be held to determine ST Ong’s one-sixth entitlement to the estate as of 29 August 1991 and the quantum of the plaintiff’s one-twelfth share under the deed of assignment. Mdm Lim appealed against Chao J’s decision. Her appeal was heard by the Court of Appeal in February 1997 and dismissed on 16 April 1997 (see Lim Lie Hoa and Another v Ong Jane Rebecca [1997] 1 SLR(R) 775).

I should point out that the OS spawned subsequent proceedings by the parties which resulted in five other judgments that were reported at: (i) [2002] 1 SLR(R) 798; (ii) [2002] 2 SLR(R) 1078; (iii) [2003] 1 SLR(R) 457; (iv) [2004] 4 SLR(R) 301; (v) [2008] 3 SLR(R) 189; and (vi) [2009] 2 SLR(R) 798. The court files reveal that the plaintiff was/is a party to sixteen bills of costs, nine civil appeals, five suits and was a caveator in CAVP No. 175 of 2010 in the estate of Mdm Lim (who passed away on 8 August 2009).

The inquiry ordered by Chao J commenced in October 2002 and was held over 23 days before Assistant Registrar Phang Hsiao Chung (“AR Phang”). At the conclusion, AR Phang in his (185 page) judgment delivered on 13 June 2003 assessed (on a standard and not wilful default basis against Mdm Lim as the plaintiff contended should have been the case) the net values of the estate in the following countries were: Singapore – S$11,872,574.21 Hong Kong – HK$18,686,098.75, NZ$451,935.37 and £1,430.34 Malaysia – S$485,528 Indonesia – S$3,616,667 Europe – US$2,127,530.28, DM2,708,472.40 and £331,043.46 The total value of the estate was in the region of S$27.9m. Consequentially, AR Phang awarded final judgment to the plaintiff in the sum of $2,321,770.27 (“the judgment sum”) plus interest together with one-twelfth share in a piece of land and a plantation in Indonesia as well as monies in a bank account in the United States. Setting off the judgment sum against periodic interim payments which the plaintiff had received between May 1998 and April 2001 pursuant to various orders of court she had obtained, the net sum due to the plaintiff was only $37,493.67. In a separate subsequent judgement, AR Phang awarded costs of the inquiry to the plaintiff.

Mdm Lim, ST Ong, the plaintiff as well as ST Ong’s two siblings (who had been joined as the third and fourth defendants to the OS because they were interested parties as beneficiaries of the estate) appealed against AR Phang’s decision, first to a judge in chambers (Justice Choo Han Teck (“Choo J”)) who dismissed their appeals (at [2004] SGHC 131) and then to the Court of Appeal. The plaintiff’s appeal was in Civil Appeal No 58 of 2004. All the appeals were dismissed on 19 January 2005 (see Lim Lie Hoa and Another v Ong Jane Rebecca [2005] 3 SLR(R) 116) (“the CA decision”).

I should point out that the plaintiff went into an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (“IVA”) with her creditors in the UK in April 2005 when she was unable to pay her debts. I should also add that throughout her years of litigation including the present proceedings, the plaintiff appeared to have received third party funding.

The facts

The CA decision was the genesis of this suit. On 20 March 2006, the plaintiff commenced this suit against the three defendants for professional negligence in acting for her as her experts (the first and second defendants) and legal adviser respectively (the third defendant) in the inquiry. Excluding the two annexures and the reliefs she claimed, the plaintiff’s statement of claim (Amendment No 1) filed on 27 January 2010 totalled 229 pages and exceeded 182 paragraphs. The plaintiff apparently did nothing after filing the writ which (after renewal) was only served more than a year later in May 2007, after the plaintiff was directed to do so by the court.

The first defendant is the Singapore office of PricewaterhouseCoopers which is considered one of “the big four” international accounting firms. The second defendant is the London office of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The third defendant was/is a firm of advocates and solicitors whose partner and subsequent sole-proprietor (from 1 January 2001) was one Andre Arul (“Arul”).

The plaintiff approached the second defendant with a view to engaging it as her expert witness in the inquiry. After a discussion with the plaintiff on 10 March 1999, Andrew Peter Clark (“Clark”) a partner of the second defendant felt it would be more appropriate for a partner of the first defendant (as it was based in Singapore) to be the plaintiff’s expert witness. Accordingly, Clark introduced the plaintiff to the first defendant’s partner Chan Ket Teck (“Chan”) who has since passed away (in late 2008). The first defendant was instructed to value the plaintiff’s one-twelfth entitlement to the estate and to evaluate the accounts pertaining to the assets of the estate when they were prepared pursuant to Chao J’s judgment. Mdm Lim engaged the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen (“AA”) to prepare the accounts of the estate’s assets. AA in two reports valued the estate in the region of S$26m.

The plaintiff engaged the first defendant’s services in or about April 1999. The first defendant produced an interim report dated 21 March 2000 (“the PWC report”) pursuant to the plaintiff’s instructions. The PWC report valued the estate in the region of S$263.5m and it was used at the inquiry.

The plaintiff’s complaint in her statement of claim in essence was that the defendants had failed to advise her that the scope of the inquiry ordered by Chao J pursuant to the judgment dated 16 July 1996 did not allow her to recover damages for breaches of trust committed by Mdm Lim. However, the PWC report was prepared on the basis that there were breaches of trust committed by Mdm Lim. The plaintiff inter alia also alleged that AR Phang found the PWC report unreliable and she was portrayed as a greedy woman. She blamed the first defendant for neither putting before AR Phang the requisite information and documents nor relying on all the documents and evidence she presented, resulting in an undervaluation by the court of the estate as being worth $27,861.242 when the estate was actually worth at least $309,265,348.12.

As for the third defendant, the plaintiff alleged that Arul was negligent in failing to bring to her attention that her case was not properly pleaded in the OS, amend her pleadings and to give her proper legal advice.

In their respective defences, the three defendants denied the plaintiff’s allegations. The second defendant denied it had acted for the plaintiff at all. The first defendant counterclaimed against the plaintiff for its professional fees in the sum of $569,865.76 for the services it rendered for the inquiry. The third defendant similarly counterclaimed the sum of $329,809.27 for professional fees and disbursements incurred in acting for the plaintiff between the period 27 December 1996 and 3 March 2006.

The events leading up to the trial

Since commencement of these proceedings and until this court’s dismissal of her action on 20 October 2011, the plaintiff has appointed no less than three firms of solicitors to represent her at various times. She had also acted in person at various stages. One firm in particular, Engelin Teh Practice LLC (“ETP”) was appointed twice, first on 24 June 2009 and then reappointed on 4 August 2011. The plaintiff acted in person in the periods 1 December 2008 to 23 June 2009, 10 May to 3 August 2011 and from 29 September 2011 onward after ETP ceased acting for her when the firm failed (first before Justice Woo Bih Li (“Woo J”)) and then before the Court of Appeal) to vacate the original trial dates fixed between 26 September and 21 October 2011 (“the trial dates”). It is pertinent to note that trial dates were first given in July 2009 but those dates were vacated with costs ordered against the plaintiff. Apparently the vacation was due...

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2 books & journal articles
  • JUDICIAL DEVELOPMENTS IN ETHICAL LAWYERING IN SINGAPORE
    • Singapore
    • Singapore Academy of Law Journal No. 2013, December 2013
    • 1 December 2013
    ...3 SLR(R) 800. 109Thong Sing Hock v Public Prosecutor[2009] 3 SLR(R) 47 at [33]. 110Ong Jane Rebecca v PricewaterhouseCoopers[2012] 3 SLR 606. 111Public Trustee v By Products Traders Pte Ltd[2005] 3 SLR(R) 449 at [53]. 112Public Trustee v By Products Traders Pte Ltd[2005] 3 SLR(R) 449 at [31......
  • Civil Procedure
    • Singapore
    • Singapore Academy of Law Annual Review No. 2012, December 2012
    • 1 December 2012
    ...Application for a stay of appeal 8.1 In Ong Jane Rebecca v PricewaterhouseCoopers[2012] 3 SLR 606 (‘Ong Jane Rebecca’), the plaintiff applied to stay an appeal that her solicitors had previously filed. Lai Siu Chiu J held that an application for a stay of an appeal to the Court of Appeal ca......

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