Lawyer Lee Suet Fern suspended for 15 months for misconduct over handling of Lee Kuan Yew's last will

Lawyer Lee Suet Fern suspended for 15 months for misconduct over handling of Lee Kuan Yew's last will

Lee Suet Fern
Screengrab of Lee Suet Fern in an interview for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. (Video: Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP) 

SINGAPORE: Lawyer Lee Suet Fern has been suspended from practice for 15 months after she was found guilty of misconduct over the handling of the last will of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon wrote in the judgment on Friday (Nov 20) that Mrs Lee was guilty of misconduct "unbefitting an advocate and solicitor" despite the absence of an implied retainer.

He also said her culpability was "at least moderately high", while the harm caused by the misconduct was "at the lower end of the moderate range".

The decision was made by the Court of Three Judges, comprising Chief Justice Menon, Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash and Justice Woo Bih Li. The Court is the highest disciplinary body dealing with lawyers' misconduct.

During hearings in August, the Law Society sought to have Mrs Lee struck off the roll for professional misconduct.

Mrs Lee, the wife of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's son Mr Lee Hsien Yang, has been a lawyer for more than 37 years and is listed online as a director at Morgan Lewis Stamford.

Mrs Lee's lawyers, Senior Counsels Kenneth Tan and former Attorney-General Walter Woon, urged the Court to dismiss all the charges against her, arguing that Mr Lee Kuan Yew knew what he was doing.

The disciplinary tribunal had earlier found Mrs Lee guilty of two charges of grossly improper conduct as a lawyer.

"INCONSISTENT EXPLANATIONS"

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had written seven wills, the first six of which were prepared by his lawyer Ms Kwa Kim Li. 

However, Ms Kwa was not involved in the last will, with Mrs Lee purportedly handling it as Ms Kwa was away and Mr Lee Kuan Yew had asked for his first will to be used as his final will. The will was prepared and executed in December 2013.

The last will differed from the sixth will as it restored the equal shares of the estate among Mr Lee Kuan Yew's three children - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling. In the sixth will, Dr Lee Wei Ling was given an additional 1/7 share of the estate compared to her two brothers.

The last will also reintroduced a clause asking for the late Mr Lee’s house at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished.

READ: Law Society seeks to disbar Lee Suet Fern over Lee Kuan Yew's will, defence asks for charges to be dismissed

A draft of this last will was emailed by Mrs Lee to Mr Lee Kuan Yew on Dec 16, 2013, copying Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Ms Kwa. Ms Kwa "for some unknown reason" appeared not to have received the email, according to the material facts. 

The Court found that there was no implied retainer between Mrs Lee and Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as Mrs Lee purportedly included Ms Kwa as Mr Lee's regular solicitor among the email recipients. Mrs Lee also asked Ms Kwa to see to the engrossing of the draft last will. 

The Court also noted that Mrs Lee had given "two inconsistent explanations" of the circumstances that led her to send the email.

The first explanation was that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had instructed Mrs Lee to revert his will to the first.

This was inconsistent with a second explanation, which was adopted only during disciplinary proceedings, that he had instead communicated those instructions to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who had then asked Mrs Lee to make the necessary arrangements to give effect to those instructions.

READ: Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted in will, Lee Suet Fern not acting as his lawyer: Defence in legal misconduct case

The Court found that the second explanation was the true position as there was "no plausible reason" why Mr Lee Kuan Yew would have "abruptly approached" Mrs Lee to seek her assistance in reverting to his first will, given that he "regarded Ms Kwa as his solicitor for matters pertaining to his estate generally".

Furthermore, Mrs Lee would otherwise not need to copy Mr Lee Hsien Yang in the email and invoke him in carrying out Mr Lee Kuan Yew's instruction. Neither would she need to copy Ms Kwa in the email to ask her to produce the draft last will attached to the email.

The Court also noted that there were no further messages between Mrs Lee and Mr Lee Kuan Yew after the email. Instead, they were between Mr Lee Hsien Yang and the elder Mr Lee.

The judges also rejected Mrs Lee’s account that Mr Lee Hsien Yang had sent the draft last will to her and she merely forwarded it to Mr Lee Kuan Yew "without even opening it".

The Court found that the draft came from Mrs Lee, who had been involved in drafting the first will, and not from Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang was likewise "not telling the truth when he said that he was the one who had forwarded" the draft last will to Mrs Lee, said Chief Justice Menon.

The chief justice also commented on her "notable lack of diligence" in establishing whether she had in fact retrieved the final draft of the first will that was in her possession. Evidence showed that it was in fact not the final draft she had.

"Instead, she assumed this to be so, and represented it as such" to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, even though she was in no position to make such a representation "given that the executed version of the first will was never in her hands", said the chief justice.

KWA KIM LI REMOVED FROM EMAILS

The chief justice noted in his judgment that it was "disturbing" that Ms Kwa was subsequently removed from the list of addressees following Mrs Lee's email on the draft will.

Shortly after Mrs Lee's email was sent at 7.08pm, Mr Lee Hsien Yang sent an email at 7.31pm to Mrs Lee, he noted. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his personal secretary were copied in the email, but Ms Kwa was removed from the list of addressees.

In his email, Mr Lee Hsien Yang told the elder Mr Lee he was unable to contact Ms Kwa and believed that she was away, and did not think it was wise to wait until she was back before executing the will.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang added that all Mr Lee Kuan Yew needed was “a witness to sign” and Mrs Lee could "get one of her partners to come round with an engrossed copy of the (last will) to execute and witness”.

The judges found “several aspects of this email troubling”.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang could not have known then that Mr Lee Kuan Yew would agree to the exclusion of Ms Kwa, yet he removed her from the list of addressees, the judgment said.

He also did not appear to have checked with anyone when Ms Kwa would be contactable or when she would be back.

“In fact, the evidence shows that Ms Kwa was very much contactable,” said Chief Justice Menon.

It was also unclear why Mr Lee Hsien Yang thought it was unwise for Mr Lee Kuan Yew to wait for Ms Kwa to be back before he executed the will.

The chief justice rejected Mrs Lee’s reasoning in her testimony that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was in a rush to execute the will because he “had a strong sense of his own mortality … and … was anxious to put his affairs in order”.

On the contrary, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had been "perfectly content to engage in discussions with Ms Kwa" about changing some aspects of his penultimate will, he said.

"SINGULAR FOCUS" ON LEE HSIEN YANG'S WISHES

Chief Justice Menon also stated that since Ms Kwa was not copied in this email, Mrs Lee would have been aware that Mr Lee Kuan Yew was being asked to proceed with the execution of the will based on the representations she made in the email she had sent earlier.

He further noted that Mrs Lee "aligned herself with her husband’s position" that Mr Lee Kuan Yew simply had to sign the last will before two witnesses.

This was despite the fact that Mrs Lee "must have known or appreciated", or at least be taken to have known or appreciated, that there were some things that Ms Kwa would have had to do as Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s solicitor, said the chief justice.

Mrs Lee “not only failed to act with prudence, but in fact acted with complete disregard for the interests of (Mr Lee Kuan Yew)", said Chief Justice Menon.

She failed to alert him to the fact that the representations she made about the draft were unverified. Thus, she gave Mr Lee Kuan Yew the impression that the draft sent to him had been checked against the first will and could be used for execution “at least implicitly”, said the chief justice.

Her “failure to put a stop to her husband’s efforts to procure the execution of the last will with unseemly haste can only be described as improper and unacceptable”, he added.

The chief justice thus agreed with the disciplinary tribunal’s assessment that Mrs Lee “worked together with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, with a singular purpose, of getting (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) to execute the last will quickly”.

In weighing Mrs Lee's culpability, the Court considered several factors in favour of a heavier sentence, including her "singular focus in achieving what her husband wanted, oblivious to the interests" of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Mrs Lee also did not attempt to contact Ms Kwa and did not highlight to her the emails which she had been excluded from. As a result, Ms Kwa had no reason to have been concerned about the circumstances surrounding the execution process.

Mrs Lee’s “significant experience” as a solicitor of more than 30 years “rendered her conduct wholly unacceptable and inexcusable”, said Chief Justice Menon.

These factors were weighed against the absence of an implied retainer between Mrs Lee and Mr Lee Kuan Yew, "which somewhat attenuated the degree of trust that (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) placed in (Mrs Lee)". That said, this factor was "of limited weight" as the elder Mr Lee was "ultimately led by Mr Lee Hsien Yang, with (Mrs Lee)’s knowledge" to rely solely on her representations about the draft last will, which turned out to be untrue.

The Court also ruled that Mrs Lee "did not act dishonestly in her dealings" with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, although this factor was likewise of "reduced weight" as she acted with "a degree of dishonesty" in the disciplinary proceedings by seeking to downplay her participation in the preparation and execution of the last will.

Mrs Lee's conduct must be assessed in the light of her "divided loyalties", the judgment said.

"On the one hand, she was loyal to her husband, who was a significant beneficiary under the last will, and who was evidently keen to rush its execution.

"On the other hand, she had a responsibility to act honourably and to ensure that (Mr Lee Kuan Yew), who she would reasonably have regarded as her client, was fully apprised of the factual position before he proceeded to execute the last will.

"Even in the absence of an implied retainer, the potential conflict of interest presented by these divided loyalties must have been patent to the respondent."

LEE SUET FERN RESPONDS TO COURT DECISION

In a statement released through Mr Lee Hsien Yang's Facebook account, Mrs Lee said: “I disagree with this decision. There was no basis for this case to have even been initiated."

She added that Mr Lee Kuan Yew "knew what he wanted" and "got what he wanted".

"The Court of Three did not find that he was of unsound mind or that he was not in control. He made the decision to revert to his landmark 2011 will following discussions with his lawyer Kwa Kim Li before I was tasked to find a witness.

"Anyone can revoke their own will while they are alive. If this will was not what Lee Kuan Yew wanted, he could easily have made another, as he had done several times before," said Mrs Lee.

She added that neither Mr Lee Kuan Yew nor his beneficiaries or Ms Kwa had ever lodged any complaint. 

"This case arose from a complaint years later by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. Lee Hsien Loong made extensive submissions, but did not present himself as a witness and was not subject to cross-examination," she said.

She added: "The Court of Three found 'no solicitor-client relationship existed' between Lee Kuan Yew and myself. The Court found there was no dishonesty in my dealings with Lee Kuan Yew and there was no finding that the will was procured by fraud or undue influence.

"Probate for Lee Kuan Yew’s will had been granted by the courts in 2015.  Probate had been sought on the urging of Lee Hsien Loong and Lucien Wong, before he became attorney-general."

Source: CNA/jt(ac)

Bookmark