The Law Society filed an application on Tuesday (25 Jun) for the High Court to review a decision by the disciplinary tribunal (DT) to acquit Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo for overcharging his client.
Alvin Yeo was a former PAP MP. He served as MP for Hong Kah GRC from 2006 to 2011, and for Chua Chu Kang GRC from 2011 to 2015. In 2014, he was embroiled in another alleged overcharging case involving the renown surgeon Susan Lim. Subsequently, Yeo “retired” from politics and did not contest in the 2015 GE anymore. Presently, he is the chairman and senior partner of the law firm WongPartnership LLP.
The Tuesday’s application is linked to a case handled by Yeo’s firm from late 2010 to mid-2015 involving an elderly widow from a prominent Singapore family. The widow, in her 80s, had inherited about S$200 million and is expected to get another S$100 million from her late father’s estate.
Her two sisters had applied to the Family Court under the Mental Capacity Act to have the widow declared to be lacking capacity to manage her assets and affairs. They wanted to be appointed as her deputies to act for her as they alleged that the widow’s youngest daughter and son-in-law were unduly influencing the widow.
Yeo was then acting for the widow’s daughter and son-in-law, opposing their aunts’ application. The Family Court at first made the declaration as sought and appointed the two sisters as deputies. When the matter went before the Court of Appeal, the widow was found to be mentally impaired and unfit to make decisions. Instead of her sisters, financial and legal professionals were appointed as deputies for the widow.
The widow’s daughter and son-in-law were then ordered to pay legal costs, including part of the widow’s legal fees. Yeo’s bill came to S$7.56 million. The daughter and son-in-law negotiated with Yeo’s firm and it reduced the legal fees by 32.5 per cent to S$5.1 million, of which S$4.56 million to be paid by the couple while the widow was to pay the balance of S$542,500.
The Court of Appeal, upon learning about the original and discounted amounts, asked WongPartnership to furnish information on the basis which it charged its client as well as the deep discount. Subsequently, the judges referred the matter to the Law Society.
Yeo thus faced charges of overcharging, with one alleging him of billing the client S$7.56 million, and the other accusing him of claiming the reduced amount of S$5.1 million when the bill was tendered to the court. Yeo denied the charges. His defence included no intention to overcharge and there was no overcharging.
According to the written decision of the DT issued on May 28, the two-member panel cleared Yeo of overcharging. It said: “In these circumstances, it is difficult to come to a conclusion that this is not a fee that a reasonable practitioner can in good faith charge or receive. When the interested parties have agreed freely to a reduction… the practitioner should not, except in egregious cases, be accused of overcharging.”
When contacted by the media, Yeo said he would not make any comments. A court conference has been scheduled on July 11 next month for the Law Society’s application.
Not the first time accused of overcharging
This is not the first time Yeo was accused of overcharging.
In 2013, renown surgeon Susan Lim lost her battle against the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) over its assertions that she had overcharged her wealthy Bruneian patient. Having lost her case, Dr Lim was ordered to pay for the SMC’s costs. At the time, SMC was represented also by Yeo.
When Dr Lim’s husband, a retired banker, saw Yeo’s bill, he was shocked. In one of WongPartnership’s bills, it was revealed that Yeo’s firm charged SMC what amounted to S$77,102 for each day they were in court. In another, it was S$46,729 for each day in court. And, for the third bill, the husband said that Yeo’s charges amounted to S$100,000 per hour of hearing.
The total bill from the WongPartnership – which amounted to S$1.007 million – was brought before a taxation hearing. The taxing registrar then reduced WongPartnership’s total bill to S$340,000 – about a third of the original bill. Yeo’s firm applied to High Court for review of this decision. High Court Judge Justice Woo Bih Li, who reviewed the matter, eventually allowed a total sum of $370,000 for the bill of costs, still about a third of the original bill.
“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,” the husband alleged in his complaint against Yeo.
In response to this complaint to the Law Society, a review committee (RC) “consisting of a senior practitioner from the Singapore Bar as well as a Deputy Senior State Counsel from the Singapore Legal Service/ Public Service Commission” was appointed to review the complaint.
The RC dismissed the husband’s complaints against Yeo, as “lacking in substance”. It based its decision on WongPartnership’s assertion that Yeo was not personally involved in the preparation of the bills, and that there was therefore no misconduct on his part.
Susan Lim’s husband then applied to High Court for a judicial review of the decision by the RC. He also applied for the admission of a prominent English Queen’s Counsel, Michael Fordham, to represent him in this action, after having been turned down by all of the over 20 Singapore Senior Counsels he approached, he said.
In 2017, Dr Lim’s husband lost his appeal in challenging a decision by the RC to dismiss his complaint against Yeo of overcharging. The Court of Appeal ruled that RC had not committed an error of law. It upheld the legal principle put forward by RC that, in the absence of proof that a lawyer has put up improper or fraudulent claims, a significant reduction by the court of costs would not, in and of itself, amount to professional misconduct.
It remains to be seen what the court will say in Yeo being accused for overcharging – a second time.