SINGAPORE - Senior lawyer Lee Suet Fern has been suspended for 15 months by the Court of Three Judges over her handling of the last will of her late father-in-law Lee Kuan Yew.
In a written judgment released on Friday (Nov 20), the highest disciplinary body for the legal profession found Mrs Lee guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor, saying that she had “blindly followed the directions of her husband, a significant beneficiary under the very will whose execution she helped to rush through”.
The case centred on the role Mrs Lee played in the preparation and execution of the senior Mr Lee’s last will, which was signed on Dec 17, 2013.
His last will differed from his sixth and penultimate will in significant ways, including the distribution of his estate among his three children as well as the demolition of his house at 38 Oxley Road. It also did not contain some changes he had wanted and discussed with his usual lawyer Kwa Kim Li four days earlier.
A disciplinary tribunal (DT) had found Mrs Lee guilty of grossly improper professional conduct in February this year.
The Court held a virtual hearing in August, where the Law Society set out its arguments for why Mrs Lee should be disbarred over her handling of the will. Mrs Lee's lawyers called for all charges to be dropped.
An 'unseemly rush'
In its 98-page judgement, the court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash and Justice Woo Bih Li, said Mrs Lee had acted at the behest of her husband to push through the execution of the will in an “unseemly rush”.
The will was signed just 16 hours after Mrs Lee first sent a draft of it to the senior Mr Lee.
The court said Mrs Lee had forwarded the draft, which was to have been based on the first will, without verifying if it was the correct version.
In fact, Mrs Lee knew she was in no position to verify it since she had not been involved in the execution of the first will, the court added.
Even then, she acquiesced to the senior Mr Lee’s lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li, being left out of the arrangements regarding the last will, the court said.
Ms Kwa was the lawyer who had executed the first will.
Despite these factors, Mrs Lee had allowed the senior Mr Lee to proceed to execute the last will, arranging for her law Stamford Law colleagues Bernard Lui and Elizabeth Kong to be the witnesses.
The court said Mrs Lee had done so even though she conceded that the senior Mr Lee would have believed and relied on her representations.
It added that after the last will was executed, Mrs Lee did not update Ms Kwa fully and frankly about all that had transpired.
Mrs Lee’s conduct was made worse by the fact that she knew her husband was a significant beneficiary under the last will, said the court, adding that she had faced divided loyalties.
“On the one hand, (she) was loyal to her husband, who was a significant beneficiary under the last will and who was evidently keen to rush its execution.
“On the other hand, (she) had a responsibility to act honourably and to ensure that (Mr Lee Kuan Yew), who she would reasonably have regarded as her client, was fully apprised of the factual position before he proceeded to execute the last will.
“Even in the absence of an implied retainer, the potential conflict of interest presented by these divided loyalties must have been patent to the respondent,” said the court.
It added that had there been a lawyer-client relationship between Mrs Lee and the senior Mr Lee, her conduct would have “constituted a grave breach of her duties”, even without regard to the conflict of interest that would have arisen.
In this case, the court said, she “not only failed to act with prudence, but in fact acted with complete disregard for the interests of (Mr Lee Kuan Yew)”.
“In those circumstances, her failure to put a stop to her husband’s efforts to procure the execution of the last will with unseemly haste can only be described as improper and unacceptable,” the court added.
But the court said it did not agree with some of the tribunal’s findings, in particular that there was an implied retainer between Mrs Lee and the senior Mr Lee and that they were in a solicitor-client relationship.
The court also said Mrs Lee did not receive instructions or directions directly from the senior Mr Lee.
Lee Suet Fern responds
In a statement posted on Facebook by her husband Lee Hsien Yang on Friday, Mrs Lee said she disagreed with the decision.
“There was no basis for this case to have even been initiated. This was a private will,” she said.
“Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted. He got what he wanted. The Court of Three did not find that he was of unsound mind or that he was not in control. He made the decision to revert to his landmark 2011 will following discussions with his lawyer Kwa Kim Li before I was tasked to find a witness. Anyone can revoke their own will while they are alive.”
Mrs Lee's role in the handling of the last will had triggered a complaint by the Attorney-General's Chambers to the Law Society in January last year about possible professional misconduct.
Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee had asked that the case be referred to a disciplinary tribunal, and a two-man tribunal, comprising Senior Counsel Sarjit Singh Gill and lawyer Leon Yee Kee Shian, was appointed by CJ Menon.
The tribunal had said in its 206-page grounds of decision that the facts exposed an "unsavoury tale" of how Mrs Lee and her husband had misled the senior Mr Lee to sign a new will without the advice of his usual lawyer, Ms Kwa, who had prepared all six of his previous wills.
The senior Mr Lee was then aged 90 and in poor health.
In August, the court reserved judgment after the virtual hearing.
The Law Society, represented by lawyer Koh Swee Yen, had argued that Mrs Lee had been involved in the will's preparation and execution despite knowing her husband stood to gain from it.
It also said the lawyer of 37 years had hurried her father-in-law through the process of signing it without the advice of his usual lawyer, who had prepared his earlier wills.
Countering the society's arguments before the court, Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan and Professor Walter Woon, a former attorney-general, said Mrs Lee was acting out of affection and concern as a daughter-in-law in assisting Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and was merely performing an administrative role.
They added that there could not have been any conflict of interest because Mr Lee Kuan Yew, "a brilliant lawyer", was fully aware of what he wanted and had consented to Mrs Lee handling the will for him. They called for all charges to be dropped.
Lies and false representations
Findings by Court of Three Judges
In suspending senior lawyer Lee Suet Fern for 15 months, a Court of Three Judges found her guilty of misconduct unbefitting of a lawyer in her handling of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last will. Here are the court’s other key findings:
• Mrs Lee Suet Fern did not tell the truth in her testimony under oath to disciplinary tribunal.
• She made false representations to Mr Lee Kuan Yew about his will and had sent it without checking if it was the correct version.
• She acted “in complete disregard for the interests of Lee Kuan Yew”, and focused on what her husband Lee Hsien Yang wanted done, moving to get the will signed “in an unseemly rush”.
• Her conduct was “objectionable”.
• Mrs Lee was cleared of grossly improper conduct, as there was no implied retainer and hence no solicitor-client relationship between Mrs Lee Suet Fern and Mr Lee Kuan Yew. This was because Mr Lee did not regard her as his lawyer.
• It was Mr Lee Hsien Yang who had been communicating with Mr Lee Kuan Yew about his will, and he had asked his wife to send his father the draft last will.