High Court revives man’s suit against ex-lawyer that was struck out after no-show by new lawyers

The court said taxi driver Cheng Hoe Soon was "gravely disadvantaged twice in his attempts to seek recourse and justice for his road traffic accident case". ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - A taxi driver who sued his former lawyer for negligence in his handling of a traffic accident case ironically had the lawsuit struck out as a result of the “irresponsible and lackadaisical conduct” of the new law firm he engaged.

Between April and August 2022, Mr Cheng Hoe Soon’s new lawyers from S K Kumar Law Practice (SKK) repeatedly failed to attend pre-trial conferences on his behalf.

Lawyer Charles Yeo from the firm attended two hearings in April, but he did not have a valid practising certificate at the time.

In September 2022, when no lawyer from the firm appeared despite numerous court warnings, an assistant registrar struck out Mr Cheng’s claim against his former lawyer, Mr Peter Ezekiel.

On Monday, the suit was revived after a High Court judge allowed Mr Cheng’s appeal to reverse the lower court’s order to strike out his statement of claim.

In his written judgment, Justice Tan Siong Thye noted that both Mr Cheng’s suit over the traffic accident and his suit over Mr Ezekiel’s alleged negligence had been struck out as a result of the errant conduct of two sets of lawyers.

“Thus, the plaintiff was gravely disadvantaged twice in his attempts to seek recourse and justice for his road traffic accident case,” said Justice Tan.

“I find the (assistant registrar’s) striking-out order draconian and disproportionate in the circumstances because the plaintiff was not at fault, but yet had to bear the consequences of the misconduct of SKK’s solicitors in (the suit against Mr Ezekiel).”

The case stemmed from a traffic accident on Jan 31, 2008, between Mr Cheng’s taxi and a lorry driven by Mr Chua Yeo Meng in Beach Road.

Mr Cheng suffered serious injuries and filed a district court suit against Mr Chua in 2009. He later discharged his original lawyers and eventually hired Mr Ezekiel.

Mr Ezekiel failed to comply with a court order to set down the case for trial by March 31, 2015, and, as a result, the traffic accident suit was struck out.

In 2019, Mr Cheng brought a negligence suit in the High Court against Mr Ezekiel and engaged SKK to act for him.

Its lawyer Yeo attended pre-trial conferences on April 12 and April 26, 2022, but each hearing was adjourned as he did not have a valid practising certificate.

No lawyer appeared for Mr Cheng at the next court date on May 17. The hearing was adjourned to May 23.

The assistant registrar hearing the case asked the firm to explain its absence and indicated he may consider striking out Mr Cheng’s statement of claim if there was further non-attendance.

The firm said in a letter on May 18 that its lawyer, Mr Foo Ho Chew, was late as he was occupied with other court matters.

No lawyer from the firm appeared on May 23, and the assistant registrar said he would strike out Mr Cheng’s suit if no lawyer was present at the subsequent hearing.

On June 14, 2022, Yeo appeared in court with a valid practising certificate. Mr Cheng was ordered to pay costs of $3,000 to Mr Ezekiel for the wasted costs arising from the four adjournments.

Yeo, who faces unrelated criminal charges, absconded after he left Singapore in late July. He was last known to be seeking asylum in Britain.

The matter was rescheduled to Aug 23, but no lawyer appeared on behalf of Mr Cheng.

At the next court date on Sept 27, Mr Foo, who was with H C Law Practice at the time, said he had been instructed by SKK to take directions from the court.

The assistant registrar ordered Mr Cheng’s statement of claim to be struck out on the basis that no counsel on record was present.

Mr Cheng failed in his bid to get a different assistant registrar to set aside the order and was ordered to pay $2,000 in costs.

He then appealed to the High Court, discharged SSK and engaged Mr Foo.

Mr Foo stated in a letter that he and Mr Mohan Singh from SKK would personally bear the costs arising from the previous costs orders and the costs of the appeal.

Justice Tan said it was not necessary to refer the errant lawyers to the Law Society, as they have taken full responsibility for the mishandling of the case.

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