by Teo Soh Lung
On 27 October 2016, the Court of Three Judges delivered its judgement on the application of the Law Society of Singapore against Mr Ravi s/o Madasamy, a well-known human rights lawyer in respect of conduct incompatible with his position as an advocate and solicitor.
The charges relate to his inappropriate behaviour at the premises of the Law Society and rude letters and baseless allegations against the prosecuting lawyer, staff and president of the Law Society and his family. It was accepted by both the disciplinary tribunal and the court that those acts were committed during the period 10 to 26 February 2015 when Ravi was suffering from “hypomanic” episode due to his bipolar condition.
A disciplinary tribunal was appointed on 25 April 2015 but did not sit till August 2015, by which time, Ravi’s practising certificate had lapsed. A lawyer’s licence to practice has to be renewed annually before the end of April.
At the hearing before the disciplinary tribunal, Ravi admitted to all the charges and offered to pay a penalty. The tribunal concluded that “there was cause of sufficient gravity for disciplinary action” and referred him to the Court of Three Judges because it was of the view that it was not in a position to impose a penalty since Ravi was not a practising solicitor.
The tribunal however, went on to observe that had Ravi been a practising lawyer, “the misconduct was not serious enough to warrant a reference to this court … as it would then have exercised the discretion available to it under s93(1)(b) of the LPA [Legal Profession Act] to determine that the Respondent should be reprimanded or be ordered to pay an appropriate penalty.”
The Court of Three Judges sat and heard the matter on 6 September 2016 and judgement was delivered on 27 October 2016.
The court disagreed with the disciplinary tribunal that Ravi’s misconduct did not warrant a reference to the court and ruled that it was necessary and appropriate to prohibit Ravi from applying for a practising certificate for a period of two years from the date of the judgement “in order to safeguard the interests of the public and to uphold public confidence in the integrity of the legal profession.”
In imposing the two year prohibition from the date of judgement, the court failed to take into consideration the fact that Ravi had not been a practising solicitor since the date he was ordered by the court to stop practice in February 2015, a period of 20 months.
Nowhere in the judgement is it stated that this fact was taken into consideration. Prohibiting Ravi from applying for a practising certificate for two years from the date of judgement, therefore, means effectively prohibiting him from practising law for about four years.
This is unreasonable because Ravi is not responsible for the delay in the prosecution of his case. He was cooperative from the time he regained his normal self and apologised to all the parties he offended. He admitted to the charges and offered to pay the penalty at the earliest opportunity.
Question of jurisdiction
A material issue that was not addressed by the Court of Three Judges was the fact that the charges of misconduct relate to Ravi while he was a practising solicitor. By the time he was dealt with by the disciplinary tribunal, he was no longer a practising solicitor.
In ordering a two year prohibition from the date of judgement, the Court of Three Judges had treated Ravi as having misconducted himself as a non practising solicitor when he was in fact a practising solicitor at the material time.
Should the Court of Three Judges remit the case to the same disciplinary tribunal for its determination? Shouldn’t he be treated as a practising solicitor and the sanction of the disciplinary tribunal be accepted? This jurisdictional issue was not addressed by the court.
Ravi had suffered a miscarriage of justice also as a result of the inordinate delay in the prosecution of his case.
In 1986, the first prime minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew complained about the inefficiency and leniency of the Law Society when dealing with its members. He accused the Law Society of delays in disciplining errant members and being too soft on them. He called self regulation of the profession a myth and introduced members of the public and legal officers into the disciplinary process.
At the hearing of the Select Committee on the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill 1986, the attorney general cited nine cases of inordinate delays in the prosecution of lawyers over a period of seven years, from 1978 – 1985. The delays stretched from 7 to 38 months. Inordinate delays in the prosecution of lawyers and being too “soft” with errant lawyers were two reasons for the Legal Profession Act to be amended in 1986. Thirty years after the law was amended, it appears that nothing has changed.
It took the Law Society and the court 20 months to decide on Ravi’s case. Unlike lawyers charged for criminal or other offences who were allowed to continue with their practice pending conviction or investigation, Ravi was ordered to cease practice by the court in February 2015. Ravi’s livelihood was thus adversely affected. His inability to practise has also deprived members of the public of his legal expertise and assistance. And now the delay has rendered the two year or 24 months’ prohibition to a 44 months’ prohibition.
Ravi’s case exposes the Law Society as one that did not care about the well being of its members. Mental illness is not a crime. It should and can be treated. In obtaining a court order stopping Ravi from practice, it should have paid close attention to his recovery and return to legal practice. Instead, it not only failed to assist Ravi but took its time to set up the disciplinary process resulting in severe hardship and mental anguish for him.
Likewise, the courts too took their time to adjudicate the case resulting in the doubling of the penalty imposed. The order prohibiting Ravi from practice does not safeguard the interests of the public or uphold public confidence in the integrity of the legal profession. Conditions requiring him to continue with his medical treatment would. Prohibition simply deprives Ravi of his career and the public of a good human rights lawyer.