SINGAPORE: A former lawyer from Hilborne Law was sentenced to two years and three months' jail on Monday (Sep 28) for pocketing about S$31,000 entrusted to him by his clients.
Zaminder Singh Gill, 57, cried during the hearing, saying that he was "really very sorry" and that he has "lost everything".
Gill pleaded guilty to five counts of criminal breach of trust as an attorney, with another 10 charges taken into consideration.
The court heard that Gill was called to the Singapore Bar in 2005 and was a legal associate at Hilborne Law between 2016 and 2019.
Between January 2018 and July 2019, he misappropriated legal fees from five clients instead of depositing the money into the firm's client accounts.
Despite knowing that he was obliged to register these clients with Hilborne Law and deposit the money handed to him into the firm's client accounts, Gill failed to register three of them. He also collected money from various clients in cash and via bank transfers.
One of the victims had given him legal fees of S$4,000 for services including court appearances, after hiring him as her lawyer when she was being investigated for offences.
However, when she tried contacting him for an update on her case, he was uncontactable, and she was later told that Gill had been fired from the firm.
Gill similarly pocketed money from other clients who engaged him as their counsel for matters such as divorce and bankruptcy proceedings, before becoming uncontactable.
Between July and August last year, at least three victims lodged police reports against Gill for failing to attend to their legal matters in July 2019.
Gill had been out of the country since Jun 28, 2019, claiming to be in Thailand with his partner, stepson and son. He also said he had broken his leg, and was arrested when he returned to Singapore in October 2019.
He later said he had used the legal fees he misappropriated on various family expenses. He has not made any restitution to Hilborne Law for his offences.
A GRAVE OFFENCE: PROSECUTION
The prosecutor asked for at least 27 months' jail, saying that criminal breach of trust is a grave offence, aggravated when committed by people in positions of trust, especially lawyers.
"Lawyers trade on their honesty; they sell their trustworthiness," said Deputy Public Prosecutor Stephanie Chew. "One of the gravest offences an advocate and solicitor could commit is to take his clients' money."
She added that Gill's offences were not easy to detect, coming to light only because of clients' complaints.
"The various rules in place for how a lawyer must deal with a client’s money exist for the protection of the public and the integrity of the profession," said Ms Chew.
"The accused’s offences have the potential to undermine public confidence in the legal profession, and public interest therefore requires a deterrent sentence."
Gill's lawyer, Mr Ramachandran Shiever Subramaniam, said his client is truly remorseful for his actions and the difficulties created for his former employer.
He is "extremely saddened" and regrets tarnishing his family's good name, said the lawyer. The money pocketed was not used on vices but to feed his family in Thailand, he added.
Mr Shiever said Gill has lost the respect of his peers and he is well aware that he is not able to practise law.
Gill also apologised to the members of the Bar and said he was prepared to face his punishment. He appeared in court via video-link from where he was remanded and cried during the hearing, saying that he was "really very sorry".
"I have lost everything," he said.
The judge said offences of this nature have the potential to undermine public confidence in the legal system, and said the impact would be felt by victims who were anxious and worried as they had pending matters that required Gill's help.
In response to CNA queries, the Law Society said it would decide on the "appropriate disciplinary" action after it reviews the charges brought, statement of facts, mitigation plea and grounds of decision.
For criminal breach of trust as an attorney, Gill could have been jailed for life, or for up to 20 years and fined.