Lawyer suspended over offer to take a cut in suit

'Ethical lapse' in asking for part of damages in lieu of legal fee

A lawyer who entered into an oral contingency fee agreement with a client over a medical negligence suit was suspended from practice for one year by the Court of Three Judges.

Mr Jeffrey Lau See Jin, who began practice in 1991, was found liable for offering to take a cut of at least 20 per cent if the client won.

"(He) used the bait of a contingency fee arrangement and an inflated prospective claim to entice the complainant to entrust him with a matter in which he had no real expertise," said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in delivering the court's judgment last month.

The Court of Three Judges, comprising the Chief Justice and Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang, is the highest body to discipline lawyers for professional misconduct. Contingency fees - where a cut of damages awarded in a suit is paid to the lawyer, in lieu of a legal fee - are prohibited here.

Ms Serene Ng, the complainant, had been unhappy with conflicting advice and treatment from two different sets of doctors.

She was considering legal action against them. At a meeting with Mr Lau in April 2014, she offered him a 15 per cent cut of the damages awarded if she won - but he made a counter-offer of 20 per cent and expected a greater share if the award exceeded $5 million.

Mr Lau, defended by lawyers Chandra Mohan Nair and Wee Pan Lee, denied the charge and claimed that the percentages raised at the meeting were just "parameters" for calculating his fees. He urged the court to give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, the court found Mr Lau's account to be "wholly unbelievable and insufficient to raise a reasonable doubt".

Mr Lau appeared before a disciplinary tribunal last year where the Law Society, represented by lawyers S. Ramesh and Ivan Lim, proved the charge beyond reasonable doubt, the Court of Three Judges noted, concurring with the tribunal.

It said Ms Ng's evidence was "consistent and clear" and "corroborated" by her subsequent actions.

The court noted the contingency fee was never acted upon, as Ms Ng stopped engaging Mr Lau's services a few months after the suit began.

But "this does not change the fact that the offence was committed and the absence of damage in this context cannot be regarded as a mitigating factor because it has no bearing on the gravity of (Mr Lau)'s ethical lapse", said the Chief Justice.

The court further noted Mr Lau's failure to keep attendance notes in general, and anything dealing with the question of fees, particularly in relation to the matter.

"We take this opportunity to remind solicitors of the importance of keeping accurate and contemporaneous attendance notes," said Chief Justice Menon.

"Where a solicitor fails to do so and his account of any discussion is at odds with that of the client, the court may disbelieve the solicitor's account in favour of the client's or draw an adverse inference against that solicitor."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Lawyer suspended over offer to take a cut in suit'. Print Edition | Subscribe