The husband of surgeon Susan Lim has launched a court action for a judicial review of a Law Society committee’s decision on two lawyers overcharging his wife.
The court action is the latest twist in the case brought against Dr Lim by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) in 2012.
The SMC had charged Dr Lim for overcharging her client, a member of the Bruneian royal family, for cancer treatment.
Dr Lim was found guilty of 94 charges of professional misconduct. After she failed in her appeal to overturn the SMC’s decision, she was given a three-year suspension and a S$10,000 fine.
Dr Lim had mounted a legal challenge to the SMC hearings unsuccessfully in the courts, and was ordered to pay the legal costs incurred by the SMC, who was represented by lawyers Alvin Yeo and Melanie Ho of Wong Partnership.
Mr Yeo, who is a Member of Parliament for Choa Chu Kang GRC, is also a Senior Partner with the law firm.
The legal bill from Wong Partnership which Dr Lim was asked to pay was S$1,007,009.37.
Dr Lim disputed this and a taxation hearing in the courts was convened.
Such hearings take place when the legal costs being claimed by the winning party in a case is being disputed.
The bill was subsequently reduced to S$340,000 by the taxation registrar.
Mr Yeo and Ms Ho applied to review this decision.
High Court Judge Justice Woo Bih Li, who reviewed the matter, eventually allowed a total sum of $370,000 as costs.
This was substantially lower than the S$1,007,009.37 originally claimed by the Wong Partnership lawyers.
Mr Deepak Sharma, the husband of Dr Lim and who is also funding her case, then complained to the Law Society that his wife had been overcharged by the lawyers, accusing them of “gross overcharging” and “improper conduct”.
The Law Society convened a review committee to look into the complaint – and subsequently dismissed Mr Sharma’s complaint against Mr Yeo, saying that his case was “lacking in substance”.
The committee based its decision on Wong Partnership’s argument that “Mr Yeo was not involved in the preparation of the bills, and that there was therefore no misconduct on his part”, according to news reports.
The committee, however, referred part of Mr Sharma’s complaint against Ms Ho to an inquiry committee for further investigation. This is believed to be the amount claimed from Dr Lim, which exceeded the amount billed to the SMC.
Now, Mr Sharma is asking the court to conduct a judicial review over the decision by the Law Society review committee’s decision to dismiss his complaints of alleged professional misconduct on the part of the Wong Partnership lawyers.
Mr Sharma says that, in one of their bills, they had charged some $77,102 for each day they were in court. In another bill, it was $46,729 for each day in court.
And a third bill claimed that the lawyers’ charges amounted to $100,000 per hour of hearing.
“I believe that the actions by the lawyers in grossly overcharging my wife by $637,009 (the difference between the original bill amount of $1.007 million and the $370,000 allowed by Justice Woo) are dishonourable and constitute grossly improper conduct,” Mr Sharma said in his papers submitted to the court.
This is believed to be the first time that an application has been made for a judicial review of a review committee’s decision.
Mr Sharma said he had sought legal representation from lawyers in Singapore to be his counsel in the judicial review case. However, he says he has been turned down “by all of the over 20 Singapore Senior Counsels” he has approached to represent him.
“All of the law firms and counsel that I have contacted have declined to act for me or even render me a formal legal opinion,” he said in court documents.
“I would add that none of the law firms or Senior Counsel contacted declined on the basis that my case was unmerited,” he explained.
He is thus applying for the admission of a prominent Queen’s Counsel (QC) from the United Kingdom, Michael Fordham, to fight his case.
Singapore law allows the admission of QCs to appear in court on an ad-hoc basis.
According to the Business Times (BT), Mr Fordham is with Blackstone Chambers in the UK, and is known for the Judicial Review Handbook he authored.
“He has been described by legal rankings publication Chambers as a leading silk in five categories; in December 2013, he was ranked as one of Chambers UK’s Top Silk Bar 100, in their inaugural listing of the top barristers practising at the Bar of England & Wales,” the BT said.
Overcharging is considered “professional misconduct”, and there are various penalties which could be meted out.
In past cases lawyers who were found guilty of overcharging have been fined, have had their licences to practice suspended, or were disbarred.
For example, in 2012, two lawyers who face disciplinary action for overcharging were suspended for three months each.
They were found to have “grossly inflated the bills” they claimed from their clients “to about $566,000 when a court-based assessment showed that the amount should have been $170,000.” (See here.)
In 2010, the Supreme Court Annual Report disclosed that 6 lawyers were disbarred for overcharging or pocketing clients’ money that year.