Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng and Others

CourtCourt of Three Judges (Singapore)
JudgeChao Hick Tin JA
Judgment Date20 July 2001
Neutral Citation[2001] SGCA 50
Citation[2001] SGCA 50
Plaintiff CounselTeh Guek Ngor Engelin SC and Sim Yuan Po Thomas (Engelin Teh & Partners)
Date20 July 2001
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 143 of 2001
Defendant CounselChelva Rajah SC and Chew Kei-Jin (Tan Rajah & Cheah)
Published date19 September 2003
Subject MatterWhether inquiry committee required to invite or allow written submission in support of complaint,Whether natural justice applicable to proceedings,Requirements of natural justice,Period of notice to be given to solicitor regarding complaint,Inquiry committee proceedings,Nature of inquiry committee proceedings,ss 86, 88 Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2000 Ed),Whether fairness breached by inquiry committee,Disciplinary procedures,Legal Profession,Whether witness must be interviewed in presence of solicitor under inquiry

(delivering the judgment of the court): This appeal raises the question as to the proper procedure to be observed by an Inquiry Committee of the Law Society of Singapore appointed to inquire into a complaint lodged by a client against an advocate and solicitor. This, in turn, involves an examination of the extent to which, and how, the rules of natural justice apply in the context of the scheme for disciplinary action prescribed under the Legal Profession Act (Cap 161, 2000 Ed) (`the Act`).

The appellant was the subject of such a complaint. Half way through the proceedings of the Inquiry Committee (`IC`), the appellant commenced action by way of an originating summons (`OS`) to challenge the manner in which the IC went about its task and asked the court to nullify the proceedings. Members of the IC were cited as defendants. At the hearing below, the judicial commissioner did not think, having regard to the essential nature of the IC, that it had, in the way it went about its task, infringed the rules of natural justice. Thus, this appeal by the appellant.

The facts

By a letter dated 10 August 1999, Mr S Shanmugan and Mdm S Sudhendra (`the complainants`) lodged a complaint against the appellant in relation to the latter`s conduct as the solicitor for the complainants in their purchase of two properties (Nos 19 and 21 Upper Dickson Road). The complaint was referred to the IC, chaired by Mr Wong Meng Meng, SC (hereinafter referred to as `IC Chairman` or `Mr Wong` as may be appropriate in the context). On 18 November 1999, the IC Chairman informed the appellant of the complaint and furnished him with a copy of it. On 2 December 1999, the appellant gave his written explanation.

The IC scheduled a meeting for 25 February 2000 at the IC Chairman`s office. The appellant appeared with his then counsel, Mr Cheong Yuen Hee. On that day, the IC interviewed Mr Shanmugan first for about an hour in a conference room while the appellant and his counsel were waiting in an adjacent room. Later, the IC interviewed the appellant in the presence of Mr Cheong, as well as Mr Shanmugan. This was followed by the IC interviewing Mr Shanmugan again after the appellant and Mr Cheong had left the room. No exception was then taken that the IC had interviewed Mr Shanmugan in private.

On 20 April 2000, there was a second meeting of the IC at Mr Wong`s office. The appellant and his counsel were present. So were the complainant Mr Shanmugan and his counsel. The IC heard the appellant`s former partner, Mr Patrick Koh, as well as the appellant`s sister, Vasanthi Pillai. The appellant was asked to make his written submission by 10 May 2000. At the meeting, the complainants` counsel further informed the IC of an earlier complaint, in a letter dated 16 July 1999, which the complainants had made against the appellant relating to certain moneylending activities of the appellant (`moneylending complaint`). Mr Wong directed that the letter, which was handwritten, be transcribed before the IC could consider it. This was done on 24 April 2000. The complainants` solicitors also furnished the IC with a statement of a Mr Leow Kok Keng, supporting the allegations in the moneylending complaint.

Also on 24 April 2000, the IC gave written notice to the complainants and the appellant to make their written submission by 10 May 2000. In another notice of the same date, the IC further asked the appellant to submit in respect of the question of conflict of interest in relation to the fact that the appellant acted for both the complainants and the appellant`s sister in the sale of the two properties. The appellant made his submission on 10 May 2000. So did the complainants.

The third meeting of the IC was held on 25 July 2000. The aim of scheduling this meeting was to enable the IC to clarify matters raised in the written submissions of the parties. The appellant and Mr Shanmugan and their respective counsel were present. Queries were put by the IC to the parties, including queries to the appellant based on points raised in the complainants` submission. At this meeting, Mr Wong also brought up the letter of 16 July 1999. When Mr Wong realised that a copy of this letter and the statement of Mr Leow were inadvertently not furnished to the appellant, this was done straightaway. Mr Cheong complained to the Committee about being confronted with documents he had never seen before, which concerned the sale and purchase of Mr Shanmugan`s house at 30 Woodsville Close and being asked to explain matters unrelated to the complaint under inquiry. Mr Cheong also objected to the IC inquiring into the moneylending complaint, raising a question of jurisdiction. Apparently, this letter of 16 July 1999 was considered by the Council of the Law Society (`the Council`) and was rejected without reference to an Inquiry Committee. This was a ground of Mr Cheong`s objection to the IC taking up the moneylending complaint.

While Mr Wong thought that the IC had jurisdiction to hear the second complaint, relying in this regard on s 86(8) and (9) of the Act, he nevertheless invited Mr Cheong to make submission on it by 3 August 2000. Mr Wong made it clear that this submission was only on jurisdiction and not on the merits of the moneylending complaint. The IC scheduled its next meeting for 7 August 2000, to continue with the inquiry, which date was agreed to by the appellant.

On the 25 July 2000 meeting, the appellant had also asked for a copy of the complainants` written submission of 10 May 2000. Although the IC Chairman thought the appellant was not entitled to a copy as of right, he nevertheless decided to let him have it. This was done the next day. The IC Chairman accordingly also extended a copy of the appellant`s submission to the complainants.

On 26 July 2000, the appellant wrote to the IC Chairman asking for the following:

(i) When and from whom did the Committee receive the handwritten letter from the Complainants to the Law Society (covering letter, if any);

(ii) When and from whom did the Committee receive the alleged statement of Leow Kok Keng (covering letter, if any);

(iii) When did the Committee send a copy of my Counsel`s submission to the Complainants or their Counsel (covering letter, if any);

(iv) When did the Complainants send their written submission to the Committee (covering letter, if any);

(v) When and how did the Complainant express their `request` to the Committee to investigate the new allegation of moneylending (letter, if any).

However, on that same day, Mr Wong left for an overseas engagement and did not see this communication of the appellant. So the following day Mr Wong`s secretary wrote to the appellant notifying him of the same and stating that Mr Wong would `reply to you when he returns early next week`.

On 28 July 2000, the appellant wrote again stating that, in view of Mr Wong`s absence, the appellant`s counsel would not `be able to give a proper submission on the issue to be dealt with by 4th August` and asked for an extension of time. On the same day, Mr Wong`s secretary replied, having spoken to Mr Wong on it, in these terms:

Mr Wong`s absence from Singapore will not in any way affect your Counsel`s ability to submit his submission.

Mr Wong also states that the date by which your Counsel was to give his submission was agreed by you and your Counsel at the last hearing.

In the circumstances, Mr Wong regrets that the application for extension of time is not acceded to.

Thereafter, events took a turn as the appellant wrote further, also on the same day, to say that he would not be participating any further in the inquiry. As the contents of this letter are crucial, we shall set them out in full:

I am disappointed that you have ignored my request for the information and the documents which will be necessary for my Counsel to fully deal with the issue raised.

My Counsel agreed to the date suggested by you before a copy of the Complainant`s Submission was received. Upon reading the Submission it became clear that the information and documents sought would be relevant. Furthermore, this view is reinforced by the contents of the Complainant`s handwritten letter and the so-called Statement of Mr Leow Kok Keng and the other documents which neither I nor my Counsel had sight of previously. Copies were furnished upon the request of my Counsel at the end of the hearing when it transpired that they were in the Committee`s possession for a long time. The request for a new date for the submission to be made in the light of the foregoing circumstances and in view of the fact that you were out of Singapore and presumably unable to deal with my request in time.

In the meantime, please be informed that I will be commencing legal proceedings to declare the Inquiry proceedings null and void and for an injunction preventing any further inquiry very shortly.

I will therefore cease to participate further in the Inquiry until further notice.

On 1 August 2000, Mr Wong, having returned from overseas, replied stating that he did not ignore the appellant`s request for information and also gave an account on how the moneylending matter came before the IC and on what transpired at the meeting of 25 July 2000. This was how Mr Wong put it:

I informed your Counsel and you that as you had not seen the typewritten copy (and I believe the handwritten) complaint and the Statement of Mr Leow before, it would not be fair to require you to respond to that immediately. I also stated that in those circumstances, I will give your Counsel time to make a submission on the issue of jurisdiction but not on the merits of the complaint on the money-lending activities. I further stated that if your Counsel`s submission on jurisdiction were to succeed, then it would not be necessary for the Committee to look into the complaint of the money-lending activities. Your Counsel could reserve his submission on the merits of the

To continue reading

Request your trial
13 cases
  • Wee Soon Kim Anthony v The Law Society of Singapore (No 4)
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • 7 December 2001
    ...Law Society & Davinder Singh/Hri Kumar [see [2001] 4 SLR 25] the court approving the decision in Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng [see [2001] 3 SLR 544] held: The proceeding before the IC is to ensure that clearly frivolous complaints should not be allowed to go further. But is not the manda......
  • Manjit Singh s/o Kirpal Singh v AG
    • Singapore
    • Court of Three Judges (Singapore)
    • 14 March 2013
    ...531 (refd) Registrar of Vehicles v Komoco Motors Pte Ltd [2008] 3 SLR (R) 340; [2008] 3 SLR 340 (refd) Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng [2001] 2 SLR (R) 556; [2001] 3 SLR 544 (refd) Tang Liang Hong v Lee Kuan Yew [1997] 3 SLR (R) 576; [1998] 1 SLR 97 (folld) Teo Soh Lung v Minister for Home ......
  • Wee Soon Kim Anthony v The Law Society of Singapore (No. 4)
    • Singapore
    • Court of Three Judges (Singapore)
    • 7 May 2002
    ...NS 730 (distd) Seet Melvin v Law Society of Singapore [1995] 2 SLR (R) 186; [1995] 2 SLR 323 (refd) Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng [2001] 2 SLR (R) 556; [2001] 3 SLR 544 (refd) Tang Liang Hong v Lee Kuan Yew [1997] 3 SLR (R) 576; [1998] 1 SLR 97 (folld) Wee Soon Kim Anthony v Law Society o......
  • Loh Der Ming Andrew v Law Society of Singapore
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • 17 October 2017
    ...with the High Court. Citing Whitehouse Holdings, Chao Hick Tin JA stated as follows (Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng and others [2001] 2 SLR(R) 556 (“Subbiah Pillai (CA)”) at [32]): Under the Act, the function of the [Inquiry Committee] is only to inquire into complaints, to eliminate frivo......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • Administrative and Constitutional Law
    • Singapore
    • Singapore Academy of Law Annual Review Nbr. 2013, December 2013
    • 1 December 2013
    ...matter and the context’ as well as ‘the object of the process at the stage in question’, following Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng[2001] 2 SLR(R) 556. In the instant case, a written hearing sufficed. 1.16 The Court of Appeal in Manjit Singh s/o Kirpal Singh v Attorney-General held there was......
  • Legal Profession
    • Singapore
    • Singapore Academy of Law Annual Review Nbr. 2001, December 2001
    • 1 December 2001
    ...draw the reader”s attention to the three cases decided on the nature and scope of disciplinary procedure. Subbiah Pillai v Wong Meng Meng[2001] 3 SLR 544 was an important decision on the relationship between proceedings before an inquiry committee and rules of natural justice. The appellant......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT