A trainee lawyer was issued a stern warning by the Police for forging documents in his application to be called to the Singapore Bar, which he has completely denied.
This happened after lawyer Tan Jeh Yaw, who supervised the six-month training contract of Kuoh Hao Teng, made an unusual decision to reject the latter’s application for admission to the Bar.
Mr Tan cited that Mr Kuoh played computer games and watched movies while at work and did not finish the tasks assigned to him. However, the trainee had denied these allegations.
Due to Mr Tan’s move to make the rejection, it has forced a High Court judge to order that the trainee lawyer’s application to be called to the Bar looked into “swiftly and vigorously” by the relevant authorities.
However, in a surprising twist of events, Mr Tan, the sole proprietor of his law firm, was found to not own all the necessary qualifications to hire trainees in the first place. This means that even if Mr Tan had not rejected Mr Kuoh’s application, the trainee could have not still be admitted under that application.
How it all started
Mr Kuoh graduated from the University of Bristol in 2017, and completed his six months traineeship under Mr Tan on 11 July 2019.
On his last day at work, Mr Kuoh submitted the documents for his application to Mr Tan, who signed them on 26 July that year.
The documents included a checklist for the supervisor to check off areas of training which the trainee had completed.
However, Mr Kuoh felt that Mr Tan did not checked the list correctly. As such, he resubmitted an amended list which he felt was a better reflection of what he did at the firm. He then sent this new list to Mr Tan.
Given that Mr Kuoh did not receive any feedback from Mr Tan regarding the changes, the legal trainee then proceeded to submit the documents on 29 July 2019.
Later on 14 August 2019, Mr Tan filed an objection to Mr Kuoh’s application and the amended list was highlighted as a matter of contention.
In Oct 2019, Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) referred the matter to the Police to be involved, following another Police report by Mr Tan in the following month and Mr Kuoh was given a stern warning for forgery.
The legal trainee then submitted representations to the AGC to retract the stern warning as he said that this incident was a “misunderstanding”.
On 27 April 2020, Mr Kuoh started a new training stint in another lawfirm, in which he received excellent report from his new supervisor. Mr Kuoh then withdrew his first application to the Bar and submitted a second one.
However, Mr Tan continued to object the new application.
Following this, Justice Choo granted Mr Kuoh’s second application and admitted him to the Bar after being informed that Mr Tan had withdrawn his objections.
Mr Kuoh’s counsel, Luo Ling Ling, sought compensation from Mr Tan because she found out that he was not qualified to take on trainees. If that’s not all, it was also revealed that Mr Tan had other trainees in his firm.
Under legal profession rules, it is required for supervising lawyer to have had a practising certificate for at least five years out of the seven years before taking in trainees to supervise.
Ms Luo also found out that Mr Tan had a practising certificate in force for only two years and 11 months during that period of time.
As such, in grounds of decision released on Friday (9 April), Justice Choo Han Teck asked whether the reasons provided by Mr Tan for his objections were true and whether other trainees of Mr Tan have been admitted to the Bar.
“It is remarkable that an application for admission to the Bar should raise so many questions yet yield so few answers,” the judge said.
He added that nearly 100 such applications are made on a yearly basis and “almost all pass uneventfully”.
In a report by The Straits Times (ST), the AGC pointed out that it takes a serious view of the questions raised by Justice Choo. Its spokesman noted: “We are looking into the matter and will take all appropriate action.”
Separately, a Law Society spokesman was quoted in an article by ST stating that it will work with the AGC and the Singapore Institute of Legal Education “to ensure that practice trainees continue to receive training from properly qualified persons and with minimum disruption”.
These three organisations are in charge of supervision legal trainees’ application to the Bar.
Grateful to judge for allowing Kuoh to admitted to the bar
Commenting about this, Ms Luo said in a Facebook post that she applauds Mr Kuoh for his diligence, and her investigations was just a small part in this case.
“My role in the investigations was very small. All I said to HT (Mr Kuoh) was, “there is an eligibility criterion you know, even I am not eligible to be a Supervising Solicitor until 14 Feb 2022”, “go dig up dirt”, “let’s fight him hard”. HT did all the hard work to fight for himself,” she wrote.
In the post, Ms Luo also revealed that she knew Mr Kuoh since he was nine as he is her husband’s cousin.
“I’ve known Zacharias Kuoh Haoteng (HT) for 19 years, since I met my hubby Fan Zongdeng. HT is my hubby’s cousin. I watched HT grow up, from a shy 9 year old to the mature hardworking man he is now.
“Our family is very grateful to His Honour, the Honourable Justice Choo Han Teck, for allowing HT’s application to be admitted to the bar. This was the only contested admission application I handled in 13 years in the legal industry,” she said.
She also noted that Mr Kuoh shared to her in January this year that Mr Tan would object any of Mr Kuoh’s new admission application, and wished to be informed of the legal trainee’s future applications as “he would like to object to every one of them”.
This then resulted in Mr Kuoh having to pay a huge sum to engage Ms Luo to contest the admission application.