Junior lawyer struck off the roll for insulting colleague's modesty

SINGAPORE - A junior lawyer at a top firm who took photographs of his colleague's chest and underwear while she was working at her cubicle was struck off the roll on Thursday (May 19).

In a written judgment, the Court of Three Judges said the four-week prison term that was handed down to the errant lawyer in criminal proceedings should not be considered as a factor for a more lenient disciplinary sanction.

The court also said the mere fact that the man was in his first year of practice when he committed the offences did not justify a lesser punishment.

A striking off was warranted as the man’s misconduct – which evinced disturbing predatory instincts – attests to character defects, rendering him unfit to be a member of the legal profession, added the court.

The court, led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, said that after the victim reported the man to the police, he tried to get her to drop the case by threatening suicide and claiming that the case would hurt his sick mother.

“Instead of evincing genuine remorse, the respondent attempted to save his own skin by waging a war of emotional attrition against (the victim), in the hope that she would buckle under the pressure. We find this deeply disturbing,” said the court.

The man cannot be identified owing to a gag order to protect the victim. He is no longer practising law here and is believed to be working as an in-house legal counsel for a business in Indonesia.

He was admitted to the Bar in August 2016 and was an associate at one of the top local law firms, which was not named in the judgment.

In April 2017, while the man, then 26, and the victim, a 23-year-old trainee, were both in the office, he leaned over her on the pretext of reading her computer screen.

Resting on the back of her chair, he took the opportunity to look down at her bra over the neckline of her dress and took photos of her chest and bra with his phone.

After viewing the photos in his room, he returned to her cubicle and surreptitiously took several photos of her panties.

He then returned to his room, where he viewed the photos before deleting them.

In October 2017, the victim, who was then an associate with the firm, was having lunch alone in the office when the man entered her room and closed the door behind him.

He sat on the floor and struck up a conversation with the victim. When she swivelled her chair around to talk to him, he took several photos of her panties with his phone.

When she crossed her legs, he asked her if it was painful for women to sit in this way for long.

He then stood up, rested his buttocks on her desk and continued talking to her. He subsequently pressed his thigh against her upper arm.

The man then returned to his room to view the upskirt photos before deleting them.

The woman lodged a police report on Nov 7, 2017.

The man resigned on Nov 15, 2017, and started work at another firm, but left that job after the case was reported in the media.

On June 8, 2020, he pleaded guilty to two charges of insulting the victim's modesty by taking photos of her chest, brassiere and panties.

Two other charges, one for taking photos of her panties and one for pressing his thigh against her arm, were considered during sentencing. He was sentenced to four weeks' jail.

On June 16, 2020, the Attorney-General referred the man to the Law Society of Singapore.

The Law Society brought two charges against the man, based on the criminal charges, and informed him by e-mail that it would be applying to the Chief Justice to appoint a disciplinary tribunal.

Multiple attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

The tribunal was appointed in September 2020. Its February 2021 report found there was cause of sufficient gravity for sanction by the court, which is the highest disciplinary body for the legal profession.

The society sought a suspension of between 3½ and five years.

Disbarred lawyers can apply to be reinstated

Under the Legal Profession Act, a lawyer who has been struck off the roll can apply to be reinstated.

The law does not prescribe a minimum period of time that must pass before a reinstatement application can be made.

But past court decisions have established that “a significantly longer period than five years” should pass before an individual can consider making a comeback.

In deciding whether to allow a disbarred lawyer to return to practice, the court will consider whether the person has been fully rehabilitated and whether it is in public interest to allow the reinstatement.

In 2007, former Commercial Affairs Department director Glenn Knight was restored to the roll, nearly 13 years after he was struck off for corruption.

In 2008, Mr Kalpanath Singh sought reinstatement about 12½ years after he was struck off the roll for cheating a client of $10,000. 

His application was dismissed in 2009 after it was revealed that he had received a spate of summonses for regulatory violations since his release from prison.

In 2019, Mr Choy Chee Yean, who was disbarred for stealing from a Hong Kong hotel room, was reinstated as a lawyer after 11 years.

The court was satisfied that he had been fully rehabilitated, but also put in place several safeguards.

In 2021, Ms Selena Chiong’s bid to be reinstated was dismissed by the court, which said she had not demonstrated that she had been fully rehabilitated.

Ms Chiong, who has a history of psychiatric illness, was struck off the roll in 2014 following her conviction of criminal breach of trust.

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