Judge orders further probe into complaints against lawyer

A judge overruled a Law Society council decision to resolve a lawyer's case with a $2,500 penalty, as recommended by an inquiry committee, and ordered the matter to be probed further.

Justice Woo Bih Li allowed applicant Andrew Loh's move for the court to direct the Law Society to apply to the Chief Justice for the appointment of the disciplinary tribunal to investigate the case.

"Despite the court's general reluctance to interfere with the decisions of the council and inquiry committee, it should nevertheless intervene where the investigation was not adequate and there is insufficient evidence on the record for an assessment of the complaint on a prima facie standard," said Justice Woo in judgment grounds issued last week.

Mr Loh had initially complained to the Law Society about his discontent over legal services provided by Mr Koh Tien Hua, who acted as his lawyer for about a month from July 7, 2015.

Mr Loh was then in the midst of a divorce suit which started in April 2014 and ended in June 2016.

The judge noted there was evidence of a deteriorating relationship between client and lawyer. On Aug 12, 2015, Mr Loh gave notice to act in person, in lieu of Mr Koh.

At the end of the same month, Mr Koh wrote to Mr Loh. He waived all legal fees and refunded his deposits to stop "the issue of fees from causing more bad blood" between them.

But in May last year, Mr Loh sent a 60-page letter of complaint to the Law Society against Mr Koh, alleging breach of duty in court and acting against instructions, among other things.

An inquiry committee was subsequently formed and held hearings.

It found only one of Mr Loh's seven complaints warranted a penalty of $2,500 against Mr Koh, and there were insufficient grounds for a further formal probe.

Mr Loh took up the matter in a High Court hearing in June this year.

The Law Society, represented by senior lawyer Prabhakaran Nair, argued Mr Loh had failed to show the governing council or the inquiry committee had acted in an unfair manner that was prejudicial to him.

After considering the submissions, Justice Woo found there were two complaints that justified further investigation by a disciplinary tribunal.

He noted that under the Legal Profession Act, further proceedings are to be pursued by Mr Loh before the disciplinary tribunal, and not the Law Society.

Some of the procedural rules that apply to Mr Loh would "cause difficulties to (him) and warrant a review at a later date", Justice Woo added.

Lawyers contacted cited the potential conflict of interest as a possible reason why the Law Society cannot prosecute the case before the disciplinary tribunal.

K.C. Vijayan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Judge orders further probe into complaints against lawyer'. Print Edition | Subscribe