Senior lawyer gets 3 months' suspension for breaking promise to opponents

SINGAPORE - A senior lawyer acting for one side in a dispute over the takings of a wonton mee stall has been suspended for three months for breaking a promise to the opposing side.

Ms Naidu Priyalatha was handed a cashier's order for nearly $27,000 by the other side, and gave an undertaking not to release it to her client until a settlement agreement was reached.

However, she released the cashier's order to her clients even though the dispute was not yet settled.

In written grounds of decision issued on Friday, the Court of Three Judges said that when a lawyer chooses to deliberately breach an undertaking that was given in a professional capacity, there is cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action until proven otherwise.

"Quite simply, a solicitor should only give an undertaking with which she is able to comply. Once given, there is no turning back," said the court, which is the highest disciplinary body for the legal profession.

"If such breaches are not met with the strongest disapprobation from the profession, it would severely erode the trust one can place on a solicitor's undertaking and fundamentally change the way modern legal business and dispute resolution is conducted."

Ms Naidu, who was called to the Bar in 1980, acted for Mr Ng Kar Kui and his wife Chang Lien Siang in early 2017 in a dispute with their business partner, Ms Wong Siew Lan.

The couple held 30 per cent each of the shares in Balestier Hui Kee, which ran a wonton noodle stall, while Ms Wong, who was the cook, held a 40 per cent stake.

Cash takings from the stall were initially deposited into the company's bank account.

But Ms Wong started putting the money elsewhere after she allegedly discovered that the couple had issued cheques from the account without her knowledge.

The couple were upset by this and threatened to sue her unless she returned the funds.

On Feb 28, 2017, Ms Wong's lawyers made a settlement offer for $26,896.45 to be repaid by way of a cashier's order.

Ms Naidu asked for the cashier's order to be given to her, failing which her clients would start legal action.

Two days later, Ms Naidu agreed to a proposal by Ms Wong's lawyers for the cashier's order to be handed to her, subject to her undertaking that it not be released until parties had reached a full and final settlement.

Ms Naidu's clients started legal proceedings on April 24, 2017.

When Ms Wong's lawyers asked for the cashier's order to be returned, she replied that she held it until April 18 and that her clients had deposited it into the company's account.

The parties eventually reached a settlement a year later.

On Nov 29, 2019, Ms Wong made a complaint to the Law Society of Singapore against Ms Naidu for breaching the undertaking.

Ms Naidu pleaded guilty to a charge of grossly improper conduct before a disciplinary tribunal.

Both the Law Society and Ms Naidu took the position that no cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action existed.

The Law Society argued that the appropriate sanction was a $15,000 penalty.

However, the tribunal disagreed and referred the case to the court, which has the power to suspend or disbar lawyers.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.