A Disciplinary Tribunal appointed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon has found lawyer Lee Suet Fern guilty of grossly improper professional misconduct in handling the final will of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew under section 83(2)(b) of the Legal Profession Act.
The tribunal said in a report released last Fri (21 Feb) that Mrs Lee and her husband Lee Hsien Yang — the youngest son of the late Mr Lee and one of the executors of his late father’s will — had encouraged Mr LKY to revoke the sixth will in the absence of Mr LKY’s lawyer Kwa Kim Li.
Ms Kwa was tasked with drafting all of Mr LKY’s wills from the first one to the sixth — the penultimate — will, from 2011 to 2012.
Mrs Lee and Mr LHY had reportedly arranged the revocation of the sixth will with Mr LKY and the execution of a new will — which was to be Mr LKY’s last will — despite Mr LKY’s agreement to execute a codicil to the sixth will.
Mrs Lee had forwarded the draft of the last will from Mr LHY to Mr LKY via email on 16 Dec 2013, and made arrangements for Mr Lee to sign the last will as soon as possible — within 16 hours — the following day, said the tribunal.
She testified that the last will was signed in the presence of lawyers Bernard Lui and Elizabeth Kong, both from Mrs Lee’s law firm Stamford Law.
Mr LKY, who the tribunal noted was 90 at the time, very frail and in poor health, signed the last will out of trust in Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s words, namely that the content of the last will’s draft was the same as his first will in 2011.
She did not, however, inform Mr LKY that the draft last will included a demolition clause not present in the sixth will, the tribunal highlighted.
The demolition clause — which concerned the demolition of his family home at 38 Oxley Road — were present in Mr LKY’s first four wills. It was later removed from his fifth and sixth wills.
The tribunal added that Mrs Lee did not seek to confirm if Mr LKY wanted certain other changes to be made — by carefully going through the provisions in the draft of the last will — in the first place.
Mrs Lee, said the tribunal, “gave the briefest of advice to Mr Lee, and did not alert Mr Lee to all the differences between what Mr Lee had earlier wanted and what the last will actually provided for”.
Additionally, the tribunal noted that Mrs Lee did not advise Mr LKY to seek independent legal advice pertaining to the matter, especially given her own possible conflict of interest as Mr LHY’s wife and the absence of Ms Kwa.
Mrs Lee’s conduct, according to the tribunal, was in violation of a solicitor’s duties, particularly considering that Mr LHY was going to partially benefit from the will.
The final will, said the tribunal, increased Mr LHY’s share in Mr LKY’s estate.
Thus, Mrs Lee’s act of receiving instructions and carrying out said instructions from Mr LHY were “an aggravating factor which increases the egregiousness of the conduct”, as the courts have emphasised the importance of solicitors exercising caution when dealing with such instructions solely from a beneficiary to a will, said the tribunal.
The couple had also demonstrated actions that are “deceitful” by suppressing certain relevant evidence, such as documents connected to Mr Lui, which Mrs Lee was under a legal duty to disclose.
Mrs Lee, said the tribunal, acted as “deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned”, while Mr LHY had made up evidence along the way in his public statements regarding the will.
Mr LKY, according to Mrs Lee’s account, had signed the last will upon being told by Mr Lui and Ms Kong that Mrs Lee was the one who had drafted the will. This was seen in her email correspondence with her colleagues when they updated her on the signing of the last will, she said.
The tribunal pointed out that Mrs Lee had neither said nor done anything to object the role being ascribed to her as the lawyer who had drafted the will, and had even given instructions to Mr Lui such as asking for an original copy of the will to be stored in her safe.
Mrs Lee told the Law Society’s lawyers that she was merely giving a hand to Mr LKY and her husband Mr LHY as a family member regarding the will, and that it did not indicate that she was Mr LKY’s lawyer.
Mrs Lee, whom the tribunal found had drafted the final will and was instructed by Mr LKY to do so, had also given “untruthful reasons” for keeping the original copy of the final will in her office safe, said the tribunal.
The pair’s dishonesty was also, according to the tribunal, made more evident in Mr LHY’s public allegation against Ms Kwa in his Facebook posts, in which he said Ms Kwa had lied regarding not having drafted the final will.
Mr LHY had also notably removed Ms Kwa from the aforementioned email correspondence, and told Mr Lee that his wife’s law firm was able to deal with the will, according to the tribunal.
“Having procured the last will through these improper means, [they] then fabricated a series of lies and inaccuracies, to perpetuate the falsehoods that Ms Kwa Kim Li had been involved in the last will, and hide their own role in getting [Mr LKY] to sign the last will and their wrongdoings,” said the tribunal.
Mrs Lee’s case began when the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) referred her to the Law Society for a possible professional misconduct case.
The AGC stated that Mrs Lee had prepared the last will of Mr LKY and had arranged for Mr LHY to execute it despite her husband being one beneficiaries. The last will resulted in Mr LHY’s share in the late Mr Lee’s estate being increased.
AGC’s complaint followed the debate held in Parliament in 2017 in which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — the brother of Mr LHY and Dr Lee Wei Ling, also one of the executors of the will — denied allegations put forth by his siblings in a public statement.
The will that took effect in 2015 was not contested by PM Lee.
The AGC said it had written to Mrs Lee several times to seek her explanation on her involvement in preparing the last will, but Mrs Lee did not answer its questions.
Mr LHY in a Facebook post yesterday (23 Feb) shared Mrs Lee’s comments regarding the tribunal’s report.
Mrs Lee said: “I disagree with the Disciplinary Tribunal’s report and will fight this strongly when it is heard in open court.”
“Any member of the public can obtain the entire record of the closed-door proceedings of the Tribunal from the Law Society. I urge the public to look at these and come to their own independent conclusions,” she added.
Mrs Lee’s case will now be referred to the Court of Three Judges, which is Singapore’s apex disciplinary body in dealing with lawyers’ misconduct.
The lawyer may face a fine, or be suspended or disbarred from her profession.