by Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss
This Thursday, 13 August 2020, a Court of Three Judges will be considering whether Lee Suet Fern, a practising lawyer of 37 years’ standing, should be disbarred for legal professional misconduct.
Lee Suet Fern is the wife of Lee Hsien Yang and the daughter-in-law of Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Hsien Yang is one of the three beneficiaries of Lee Kuan Yew’s estate.
The charges of misconduct were brought against Lee Suet Fern by the Law Society of Singapore (the Society) following a complaint filed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) to the Society on 4 December 2018. As the complaint came from the AGC, the Society is by law mandated to apply to the Chief Justice to appoint a Disciplinary Tribunal.
The Society’s charges against Lee Suet Fern relate to her involvement in the execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will signed on 17 December 2013.
From 20 August 2011 to 17 December 2013, Lee Kuan Yew made a total of seven Wills.
By operation of law, each new Will superceded the previous Will. Lee Kuan Yew signed the Last Will on 17 December 2013. Two lawyers came to Lee Kuan Yew’s house to witness his execution of the Last Will.
On 2 January 2014, Lee Kuan Yew on his own prepared and signed a Codicil to his Last Will. He arranged his own witnesses. A ‘codicil’ is a formally executed document made after a will that adds to, subtracts from, or changes the will. The Codicil bequeathed two carpets to Lee Hsien Yang.
Lee Kuan Yew passed away on 23 March 2015. Probate was granted on the basis of the Last Will on 6 October 2015.
On 13 February 2019, two practising lawyers, Sarjit Singh Gill and Yee Kee Shian Leon, were appointed by the Chief Justice as the Disciplinary Tribunal to hear and investigate the Society’s charges against Lee Suet Fern.
The issues at stake before the Disciplinary Tribunal were essentially:
- Whether Lee Suet Fern and Lee Kuan Yew stood in a solicitor-client relationship i.e. was there an Implied Retainer; and
- If Lee Kuan Yew was her client, did she fail her client to the extent of professional misconduct.
Lee Suet Fern pleaded not guilty to all the charges. The Disciplinary Tribunal conducted a five-day hearing from 1 to 5 July 2020. During the hearing, Lee Suet Fern and Lee Hsien Yang were cross-examined on the witness stand by the Society’s lawyers on their testimonies.
On 18 February 2020, the Disciplinary Tribunal released their decision. The Disciplinary Tribunal concluded Yes on the two questions.
The Disciplinary Tribunal agreed with the Society that Lee Suet Fern and Lee Kuan Yew stood in a solicitor-client relationship. The Disciplinary Tribunal said that Lee Suet Fern had failed to advance her client’s interest, instead she had promoted her own interest and/or the interest of her husband, Lee Hsien Yang ahead of her client’s interest. She also failed her duty to advise Lee Kuan Yew to be independently advised in respect of his intention to give a one-third share of his estate to Lee Hsien Yang.
Given the Disciplinary Tribunal’s findings against Lee Suet Fern, the Court of Three Judges will now determine if the Respondent should be disbarred.
The Society’s case against Lee Suet Fern is about a solicitor’s legal professional duties, how a solicitor should conduct himself when he deals with his client and what amounts to professional misconduct.
The Society’s case against Lee Suet Fern is not about whether Lee Kuan Yew was aware or unaware the Last Will contained the Demolition Clause. In a statement published by the AGC on 7 January 2019 to announce that the AGC had filed a complaint of professional misconduct involving Lee Suet Fern, the AGC stated that their complaint did not relate to the validity of Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will.
Doubts as to whether Lee Kuan Yew was aware his Last Will contained the Demolition Clause was publicly raised by Lee Hsien Loong on 15 June 2017 who said a “series of events led me to be very troubled by the circumstances surrounding the Last Will.”
Notwithstanding Lee Hsien Loong had publicised his unhappiness with Lee Suet Fern’s involvement in the execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will, Lee Hsien Loong is not the Complainant nor a party to the proceedings against Lee Suet Fern.
As earlier mentioned in this article, the case against Lee Suet Fern was initiated by AGC. More accurately, it was filed by Deputy Attorney-General Lionel Yee, as Attorney-General Lucien Wong had recused himself from the case against Lee Suet Fern. Lucien Wong had been Lee Hsien Loong’s personal lawyer prior to becoming the Attorney-General.
In their 7 January 2019 statement, the AGC referenced their statutory duty to deal with misconduct by lawyers as the basis for filing their complaint against Lee Suet Fern. The AGC said that when the AGC becomes aware of possible professional misconduct, it is required to consider if the matter should be referred to the Society. In this case, AGC became aware of a possible case of professional misconduct by Lee Suet Fern. The AGC statement did not say how the AGC became or was made aware of possible professional misconduct by Lee Suet Fern in respect of the execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will.
Notwithstanding Lee Hsien Loong’s misgivings with Lee Suet Fern’s involvement in the execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will, the focus of the Disciplinary Tribunal was on what Lee Suet Fern should or should not have done, rather than on whether Lee Kuan Yew was aware or unaware of the Demolition Clause when he signed the Last Will.
The Court of Three Judges hearing the case this Thursday comprises Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Justice Judith Prakash and Justice Woo Bih Li.
Although the next step following the Disciplinary Tribunal’s findings against Lee Suet Fern is for the Court of Three Judges to decide if Lee Suet Fern should be struck off the roll, the powers of the Court of Three Judges are not limited to that role.
The Court of Three Judges is not bound to accept the findings and decision of the Disciplinary Tribunal. If the Court of Three Judges does not agree with the decision of the Disciplinary Tribunal, it has the power to set aside the determination of the Disciplinary Tribunal, direct Disciplinary Tribunal to rehear and reinvestigate the complaint, or even order the appointment of another Disciplinary Tribunal to hear and investigate the complaint.
We shall see in the coming days whether the Court of Three Judges agrees with Disciplinary Tribunal’s conclusions or not; and if the Court does, then whether the Court considers it would be an appropriate sanction to strike Lee Suet Fern off the roll.
Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss is a practising lawyer of 30 years’ standing. Wills & Probate is one of her areas of specialisation.