Law Society ordered to act on complaint against lawyer for wealthy widow

The Court of Appeal said the discipline of lawyers was a matter of public interest that was ultimately under the control of the court. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Court of Appeal on Friday (Jan 29) ordered the Law Society to act on a complaint against a lawyer who was involved in setting up a trust for a mentally impaired elderly widow with a fortune of at least $200 million.

The three-judge court said it would not generally mandate a decision-maker to carry out its duty in a particular manner, but this was an exceptional case that justified such an order.

In a written judgment delivered by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, the court said the discipline of lawyers was a matter of public interest that was ultimately under the control of the court.

"The (Law Society) undoubtedly plays an integral role in maintaining the standards of the profession, but the court exercises ultimate responsibility for the discipline of lawyers and it presides over the disciplinary process," said the court.

It also noted that the Law Society, which decided in 2018 not to move the complaint forward, did not take steps to reconsider the matter despite being ordered by the High Court to do so in January last year.

The court added that there was ample basis for assessing the potential gravity of the alleged misconduct as the complaint, lodged by the woman's son, arose out of a case that reached the apex court.

None of the individuals in the case was named in the judgment.

The widow is from a prominent Singapore family, who inherited $200 million from her father's estate and is expected to get a further $100 million.

Animosity between her three children - with her elder daughter and son on one side and her younger daughter on the other - culminated in two sisters of the widow applying to the court to declare that she lacked the mental capacity to manage her assets.

In 2015, the Court of Appeal found that the widow's decisions on her assets were made under the undue influence of her younger daughter and son-in-law. Professional deputies were also appointed to act for the woman, who was then 80 years old.

In 2018, the widow's son lodged a complaint with the Law Society, alleging misconduct on the part of the lawyer who had advised his mother on establishing a trust in 2010.

The lawyer had also spoken on her behalf in meetings with two banks, in attempts to transfer her assets to a third bank where the trust was set up.

As the alleged misconduct took place more than six years before the complaint was made, the Law Society was required by law to obtain the court's permission to refer the lawyer for investigation.

The Law Society decided against seeking the court's permission, and the woman's son sought a judicial review by the High Court to challenge this.

In January last year, a High Court judge found that the Law Society failed to consider the relevant factors and ordered it to rethink its decision.

The woman's son then appealed, seeking an order to compel the Law Society to seek the court's permission to advance the complaint.

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