Court of Appeal upholds decision that Susan Lim must pay $235,000 in fees to legal assessor

Surgeon Susan Lim has been ordered to pay $235,000 in fees to a legal assessor who was involved in a disciplinary inquiry against her.
Surgeon Susan Lim has been ordered to pay $235,000 in fees to a legal assessor who was involved in a disciplinary inquiry against her. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES

SINGAPORE - The Court of Appeal on Wednesday (March 9) upheld a High Court decision that surgeon Susan Lim has to pay $235,000 in fees to a legal assessor who was involved in a disciplinary inquiry against her for overcharging the sister of the Queen of Brunei.

The three-judge court dismissed an appeal by Dr Lim - who was found guilty in 2012 of overcharging - that the amount she had to pay was "manifestly excessive".

The fees, charged by Senior Counsel Vinodh Coomaraswamy, were part of a larger bill that the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) had submitted against Dr Lim for work done by its lawyers and the expenses incurred in two disciplinary committee hearings brought against her.

The senior counsel, who is now a High Court judge, had billed the SMC for 224 hours of work at a rate of $1,050 an hour, which came up to more than $235,000.

In September 2014, a High Court assistant registrar ordered Dr Lim to pay a total of $360,000 in legal costs and expenses. This included less - $22,000 - in fees for Mr Coomaraswamy, who was approached by the SMC at act as legal assessor for the second inquiry.

The SMC then appealed to the High Court for the assistant registrar's decision to be reviewed.

In May last year, High Court Woo Bih Li raised Mr Coomaraswamy's fees to $235,000, saying that he did not think the sum was unreasonable, in view of the complexities of the case.

Separately, Justice Woo also raised the SMC's lawyers' fees from $250,000 to $520,000.

Dr Lim then appealed higher but only on the issue of Mr Coomaraswamy's fees.

Her lawyer, Senior Counsel Lee Eng Beng, argued that Mr Coomaraswamy's invoice raised a host of questions as it lacked a precise breakdown of the work he had done.

But on Wednesday, the appeal court dismissed Mr Lee's arguments.

The court - which comprised Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang, Justice Tay Yong Kwang and Justice Quentin Loh - said that the rate of $1,050, which was agreed between SMC and Mr Coomaraswamy, was a reasonable one, considering his seniority.

As this was a complex case, both factually and legally, Mr Coomaraswamy would have spent a lot of time preparing for it, the court said.

The court also noted that given the history of the disciplinary proceedings against Dr Lim, it would be natural for Mr Coomaraswamy to have done more work to avert legal or procedural errors.

Dr Lim was brought before two disciplinary committees after the Ministry of Health lodged a complaint against her in 2007, following concerns raised by its Bruneian counterpart over her bills.

Dr Lim treated Pengiran Anak Hajah Damit for breast cancer until the patient's death in August 2007. Her bill for 2007 came to $24 million.

The first committee disqualified itself after her lawyers contended that it had prejudged the case. In 2012, she was found guilty by the second committee and suspended for three years, censured and fined $10,000.

Her suspension took effect in 2013 after she had failed in her appeal and is due to end in July this year.