Lawyer suspended 3 years for conflict of interest when he favoured one client over another

SINGAPORE - A lawyer, who acted for two clients with conflicting interests and ended up favouring one over the other, was on Thursday (Jan 17) suspended from practising for three years.

Mr Peter Ezekiel had acted for both an employer and an employee who were charged with falsely declaring to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) that the latter's salary was $1,800, when it was in fact $1,200.

The employee had told Mr Ezekiel, 49, that he had been deceived by the employer and that he had genuinely believed his salary was $1,800.

But the lawyer did not convey this to the Attorney-General's Chambers in written representations.

The employee, an Indian national who worked as a performing artist at a Dunlop Street pub, discharged Mr Ezekiel and lodged a complaint to the Law Society.

He was fined $6,000 after deciding to plead guilty as he did not want to remain in Singapore to fight the case.

An independent disciplinary tribunal found that Mr Ezekiel had not advanced the employee's allegations because it would have affected the interests of the employer, who had hired him first before she recommended him to the employee.

The tribunal concluded that Mr Ezekiel's failure to act in the best interest of the employee amounted to improper conduct and imposed a $3,000 fine.

However, the Law Society disagreed with this conclusion.

Mr M.P. Rai, representing the society, argued before the Court of Three Judges on Thursday that Mr Ezekiel's actions were serious and amounted to grossly improper conduct which warranted a suspension.

Mr Rai told the court that in September 2014 when the employee signed the work permit application stating his salary as $1,800, he believed that was what he would be paid.

Shortly after, MOM raided the pub, and his employer told him to sign a salary voucher for $1,200. It was then that he found out his salary was $1,200.

By then, he had no choice but to accept the employer's explanation that she would deduct $600 for accommodation, airfare and food.

Mr Rai argued that Mr Ezekiel, who has been a lawyer for 21 years, had a duty to present these facts to the AGC .

"Instead, he advanced the employer's interest at the expense of the complainant, thereby causing an innocent person to be convicted for a criminal offence when he had a credible defence."

Mr Ezekiel's lawyer, Mr Chenthil Kumarasingam, said his client accepted that there was a conflict of interest and he should not have continued to act for both.

The court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Tay Yong Kwang and Justice Belinda Ang, agreed with Mr Rai and imposed a three-year suspension.

Detailed written reasons will be issued later.