AGC refers case of possible misconduct by lawyer Lee Suet Fern to Law Society; Lee Hsien Yang questions move

The AGC said Mrs Lee Suet Fern appears to have prepared the late Mr Lee's last will and arranged for him to execute it, despite the fact that her husband Lee Hsien Yang is one of the beneficiaries under that will. PHOTO: STAMFORD LAW

SINGAPORE - The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) has referred a case to the Law Society over possible misconduct by Mrs Lee Suet Fern, the daughter-in-law of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, in preparing his last will.

In a statement on Monday (Jan 7), the AGC said the referral does not relate to the validity of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's last will.

This development is the latest in the long-running dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his younger siblings Hsien Yang and Wei Ling, over the fate of their father's house at 38 Oxley Road.

Noting that it became aware of a possible case of professional misconduct by Mrs Lee, the AGC said it has a statutory duty to deal with misconduct by lawyers. It added that it is required to consider if the matter should be referred to the Law Society under section 85(3) of the Legal Profession Act.

Responding in a Facebook post on Monday evening, Mr Lee Hsien Yang questioned what public interest is being served by the AGC, and why it is rushing the case in 2019 when the facts were known by all parties for years.

He also called on the AGC to release the full correspondence with his wife, saying its assertion that she refused to respond is untrue.

In its statement, the AGC said Mrs Lee appears to have prepared the late Mr Lee's last will and arranged for him to execute it, despite the fact that her husband Lee Hsien Yang is one of the beneficiaries under that will.

It noted that Mr Lee Hsien Yang's share increased under his father's last will, and that Mr Lee Hsien Yang had said publicly that the last will was drafted by Ms Kwa Kim Li of law firm Lee & Lee. However, Ms Kwa has denied that she drafted it.

The AGC cited the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules, saying it requires that lawyers do not place themselves in a position of conflict.

"Where a person intends to make a significant gift by will to any member of the lawyer's family, the lawyer must not act for the person and must advise him to obtain independent advice in respect of the gift. This rule applies even if the lawyer is related to the person making the gift," the AGC said.

Mrs Lee's conduct appears to be in breach of the rules, it said.

Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee has been overseeing the case, as Attorney-General Lucien Wong has recused himself, the AGC said. Mr Wong did so as he was previously PM Lee's personal lawyer.

AGC added that it has written to Mrs Lee several times since October 2018, asking her to explain the position and her role, if any, in preparing the last will.

"(Mrs Lee) was also assured that if she had good explanations for her conduct, then the matter will end. However, despite asking for extensions of time to respond, Mrs Lee did not answer the questions that AGC had asked," the AGC said.

As Mrs Lee did not answer, the AGC referred the case to the Law Society, and Mr Yee has further requested that it be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.

"In referring the matter to the Law Society, the AGC does not make any findings on the merits of the case. AGC does not determine guilt or innocence," the AGC said, adding that it is for the Disciplinary Tribunal appointed by the Chief Justice to investigate, determine if there was misconduct and what actions should be taken, if any.

Mrs Lee is entitled to make her case to the Tribunal as well, it said.

Law Society President Gregory Vijayendran said that it is not unusual for the AGC to make complaints against lawyers.

"This is not a bolt from the blue or something we are looking at for the very first time in our industry. There's actually been complaints from time to time," he said, adding that judges also make such complaints.

Mr Vijayendran said that he could not comment further on the case as the Legal Profession Act mandates that such proceedings be kept confidential.

Complaints against lawyers are first referred to a review committee, and escalated to an inquiry committee and disciplinary tribunal if necessary. However, complaints made by the AGC or judges skip the first stage and go straight to the inquiry committee.

The AGC and judges also have the discretion to bypass the first two stages, and refer the complaint directly to a disciplinary tribunal.

In a summary of his statutory declarations posted on Facebook in July 2017, PM Lee had expressed serious misgivings in setting out the sequence of events around the preparation of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's seventh and final will.

PM Lee had indicated in his declarations that the last will was prepared in less than a day, between the evening of Dec 16, 2013 and the morning of Dec 17, 2013.

He noted that Mr Lee Hsien Yang had said he could not contact Ms Kwa, who prepared all six of Mr Lee's earlier wills.

On the morning of Dec 17, 2013, Mrs Lee sent two lawyers from Stamford Law Corporation to procure Mr Lee Kuan Yew's signature on the last will, PM Lee said in his declarations. They were only at 38 Oxley Road for 15 minutes, which meant "they plainly came only to witness Mr Lee signing the last will and not to advise him".

PM Lee in his declarations said he only became aware of the "troubling circumstances" later.

Lee Hsien Yang responds

In response to the AGC statement, Mr Lee Hsien Yang said his wife Suet Fern was never Mr Lee Kuan Yew's lawyer.

He said Mr Lee Kuan Yew's private will was executed about five years ago, and the family patriach had informed the entire family and his lawyers at Lee & Lee when he completed his will, which was kept at Lee & Lee.

"This was his re-signing of his 2011 will in which Minister Shanmugam was involved," he said, adding Lee & Lee had served as Mr Lee Kuan Yew's lawyers for all his wills since the first one in 1995.

"That first will was drafted by our mother, Kwa Geok Choo, who was then the principal beneficiary under our father's will," Mr Lee Hsien Yang noted.

He also made the point that no one has complained from the outset on the process and circumstances of Mr Lee Kuan Yew signing his final will.

The will was proven in court in 2015 with no issues raised, and all parties have acted in accordance with the will since then, he added.

"What public interest is being served by AGC here? Why waste public resources on a private matter, and after all this time? Why is AGC rushing this case in 2019 when the facts were known by all parties for years?" Mr Lee Hsien Yang asked.

"AGC's assertion that my wife refused to respond is untrue. AGC should release the full correspondence."

Prior to AGC's statement, Ms Lee Wei Ling made a Facebook post Sunday night on how the AGC had recently lodged more than 500 pages of complaint to the Law Society against Mrs Lee, who stepped down as managing partner of Morgan Lewis Stamford in 2017.

"The AGC's complaint repeats allegations that were made years ago by Hsien Loong through his personal lawyer. As far as we know, this is an unprecedented use of such legal process involving a private will," she wrote.

"Hsien Loong has been unhappy with our father's will and our father's wish to demolish his home at 38 Oxley Road. Lee Kuan Yew informed all his children and his lawyer at Lee & Lee when he completed his final will and codicil five years ago.

"In 2015, on Hsien Loong's urging, the estate secured probate for the will. At the time, all parties including Hsien Loong accepted the will as representing Lee Kuan Yew's true wishes. After probate, in 2016 and 2017, Hsien Loong sought to attack the will through a committee of his ministers," Ms Lee Wei Ling wrote.

She added that Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a highly regarded lawyer, never complained about his will, nor has any beneficiary complained to the Law Society - "not even Hsien Loong who was advised by Lucien Wong (previously his personal lawyer, now Attorney-General)".

"Why therefore this new attack on our father's will? Why is this being initiated now, and by the AGC, after all this time? Our view is that this action is wholly without merit," Ms Lee Wei Ling said.

Long-running dispute

The dispute over 38 Oxley Road had erupted in the public sphere in June 2017, when the younger Lee siblings posted a statement on Facebook to say they had lost confidence in their older brother's leadership and feared the use of organs of state against them.

They also made other allegations against him, such as that he used his position as prime minister to influence a ministerial committee looking into options for founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's house.

PM Lee refuted the charges of abuse of power in a two-day Parliament sitting in July 2017.

He said there was no evidence to back up the claims, and that he and the Government had acted properly and with due process.

In a statement issued after the sitting, his siblings said they would stop making further posts against PM Lee for now, provided their wish, and their father's desire, to demolish the Oxley Road house "are not attacked or misrepresented".

They also said they welcomed PM Lee's desire to settle their quarrel in private, and looked forward "to talking without the involvement of lawyers or government agencies".

In April 2018, the Ministerial Committee on 38 Oxley Road laid out three broad options for the house, but left the final decision on it to a future government. The options ranged from preserving the house as a national monument to demolishing it and allowing the owner to redevelop it for residential use.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Ms Lee Wei Ling took issue with the report, saying that it does not accurately represent their father's wishes.

In her Facebook post on Sunday, Ms Lee Wei Ling also said the AGC has been "relentless" this past one and a half years pursuing a prosecution of her nephew Li Shengwu for a private Facebook post in which he said Singapore "has a pliant court system".

"At the same time, the AGC has not prosecuted any party who shared or published his private post,"she said.

In September 2018, Mr Li received the green light to go ahead with his appeal to quash a court order that allowed the Attorney-General to serve papers on him in the United States for contempt of court.

One of the key issues that will be argued before the Court of Appeal is whether a procedural rule - which specifically allows court papers for contempt to be served outside Singapore - can be applied retroactively.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.