SINGAPORE - A family lawyer who was trying to reach a settlement with opposing counsel on the amendment of a document lied to the court that he had been "unable" to get his client's confirmation.
Mr Koh Tien Hua then consented to having portions of the document struck out, which was contrary to what his client wanted, and hid this fact from the client.
Last Thursday (April 14), Mr Koh, a partner at Harry Elias Partnership, was suspended for three years for acting against the instructions of his client, Mr Andrew Loh, and for dishonestly concealing this fact from him.
In meting out the suspension, the Court of Three Judges, which has the power to suspend or disbar lawyers, also considered that Mr Koh had made misleading statements to an assistant registrar.
The decision marked the end of a six-year legal fight for Mr Loh, who lodged various complaints against Mr Koh with the Law Society in 2016.
The complaints have been examined and re-examined by an inquiry committee, a disciplinary tribunal, the High Court and Court of Appeal, each arriving at a somewhat different conclusion about the extent and severity of Mr Koh's misconduct.
In its written judgment, the Court of Three Judges, led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, reiterated that misconduct involving dishonesty will often lead to the errant lawyer being struck off the roll.
However, the court said Mr Koh's dishonest conduct did not warrant a striking off as it did not indicate a character defect, and also did not undermine the administration of justice.
"The real nature of Koh's wrong, in our judgment, is his woefully inadequate management of Loh as his client," said the court.
The court noted that none of the parts struck out by Mr Koh's consent were among the seven pages that were later reinstated on Mr Loh's appeal.
The court also found that Mr Koh's misstatements to the assistant registrar, while unbecoming of a lawyer, were of no consequence.
His concealment of what had happened at the hearing was not elaborate, said the court.
"Simply put, he wished to avoid being confronted with the consequences of his failure to abide by basic client-management practices," said the court.
Mr Koh also did not benefit from his dishonesty and his conduct did not, in the end, cause Mr Loh any harm, the court added.
Mr Loh had engaged Mr Koh in July 2015 to act for him in his divorce.
A neighbour, whom Mr Loh alleged had an affair with his wife, was named as a co-defendant in the proceedings.
The co-defendant contested the allegation of adultery and applied to strike out certain parts of Mr Loh's statement of particulars, a document which sets out his story of how the marriage broke down.
The application was scheduled to be heard on July 27, 2015.
Some 20 days prior to the hearing, Mr Loh told his lawyer that he wanted to establish that the co-defendant was the initiator of the affair.
After the meeting, Mr Loh sent several e-mails to Mr Koh setting out his responses to the application, asking for a copy of the written submissions, and seeking an update.
The lawyer did not respond.
At the hearing, Mr Koh consented to certain parts being struck out from the document, after telling the assistant registrar that he was unable to get his client's confirmation on a settlement.
Mr Loh was unhappy with the outcome and wanted to appeal. Mr Koh did not tell his client that he had consented to the striking out.
The lawyer filed the appeal on August 11, 2015, and was discharged the next day.
Mr Loh obtained the court's notes in September 2015 and questioned Mr Koh's handling of the matter. He lodged the complaints eight months later.