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Inflated legal costs—all eyes on SMC for now

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In recent weeks, there have been a lot written in some blogs about the so-called “overcharging” by lawyers from Wong Partnership for work done for the Singapore Medical Council (SMC).

There has also been one petition set up to seek the “impeachment” of one of the lawyers involved, People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP), Alvin Yeo.

Mr Yeo, along with his colleagues, Melanie Ho and Lim Wei Lee, were the lawyers for the SMC in its legal action against Dr Susan Lim, who was later found guilty of overcharging her client, a member of the Brunei royal family, for services Dr Lim rendered which totalled about $24 million.

The SMC had sought to claim some S$1.33 million from Dr Lim as costs for the hearings. The SMC said that this was the bill charged to it by Wong Partnership.

After several appeal and counter-appeal hearings before court registrars and judges, the High Court finally decided in September that the total costs which could be claimed by the SMC against Dr Lim should be S$317,000.

In other words, it is a vast reduction from the amount sought by the medical council.

In fact, it is a mere one quarter of the costs claimed by the SMC.

Now, to be clear, taxation (that is, costs assessment) hearings by the court are not unusual. In fact, it is quite a common practice, from what this writer is told.

Losers in a case would try and have the costs taxed down, while winners seek to claim as much of the legal costs as possible.

The court’s role is to decide what is a reasonable claim.

And in this particular case involving the SMC, the court assistant registrar, Jacqueline Lee, has judged that the claims by the SMC were “inflated” and has taxed them down substantially.

So, the question is not that Mr Yeo (and his colleagues) had been “found guilty by the High Court for overcharging Susan Lim”, as alleged by one blog post.

They were not found guilty of anything simply because there was no such case brought against the lawyers, and thus there is no finding of fact that they had overcharged anyone, let alone Dr Lim who, by the way, is not their client. (So, how could the lawyers have charged her, let alone overcharge her, at all?)

Nonetheless, while taxation hearings are not unusual, the fact that the costs claimed by the SMC have been taxed down rather substantially by the courts should raise question about the bill from Wong Partnership.

Thus, the real question here is: what is the SMC going to do about the apparently excessive or exorbitant costs it was charged by the Wong Partnership lawyers?

From what this writer understands, it is the SMC which must file a complaint with the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) that it has been overcharged by its lawyers, if indeed the SMC feels this is needed.

The LawSoc will then convene a Disciplinary Tribunal hearing to look into the matter, as it has done in previous complaints, such as the recent one involving lawyer, Andre Arul.

According to the Rules outlined in the Legal Professions Act, lawyers are expected “to act in the best interest of his client and to charge fairly for work done.”

“Gross overcharging for work done” is considered professional misconduct, the Law Society website says.

But before we jump the gun and make wrong or unfounded accusations against the lawyers of Wong Partnership, or create petitions for them to be “impeached” because of the alleged “overcharging”, we must be fair that there must first be findings of facts and for the accused (if indeed they should be accused of such) be given the opportunity to defend themselves.

It is thus premature to jump to conclusions without first going through due process.

It is now up to the SMC to let the public know what it intends to do with regards to the apparent overcharging by its lawyers.

This is especially pertinent given the fact that it was the SMC which took great umbrage at Dr Lim’s overcharging her client.

Why then should the SMC not similarly take offence at being overcharged by its lawyers?

As Mr Daniel Chia wrote in his letter to the press on Tuesday:

“To me, the issue is not why the lawyers' fees to be paid by the losing party were taxed lower than the claimed amount. The question is how the SMC could have allowed a situation where it incurred $900,000 in legal fees for a single disciplinary case.

“I am not saying the SMC was wrong, but I echo Dr Lim's call for financial prudence and an independent review.”

All eyes should be directed at the SMC and its members – at least for now.

*The president of the SMC is Professor Tan Ser Kiat, who is also a member of the Public Service Commission, amongst several other posts he holds.