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Singapore

Former lawyer from top firm reinstated 11 years after Hong Kong burglary conviction

Former lawyer from top firm reinstated 11 years after Hong Kong burglary conviction

A police officer outside the Supreme Court of Singapore. (File photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: A former lawyer from a top firm in Singapore who was disbarred in 2010 because of a burglary conviction in Hong Kong was reinstated as a local advocate and solicitor on Tuesday (Nov 19).

Former Rajah & Tann lawyer Choy Chee Yean was granted his application to be reinstated as an advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore by the Court of Three Judges.

The panel, comprising Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang and Justices Belinda Ang and Chao Hick Tin, found that his case was an "exceptional one".

Mr Choy had been convicted of burglary in Hong Kong in 2008 for stealing items including a bag, a charger, a mobile phone and an iPod from a hotel room there.

He was sentenced to a year's jail and suspended for two years by a Hong Kong district court, and Mr Choy wrote to the Law Society (LawSoc) to inform them of his conviction.

He also voluntarily suspended himself from practice for two years, before being disbarred in 2010. 

Both Mr Choy's lawyer and the lawyers representing LawSoc and the Attorney-General agreed for him to be reinstated, with certain conditions.

Mr Choy's lawyer, Ms Aurill Kam from Legal Clinic, told the court that her client was suffering from major depressive disorder at the time of the offence.

The court found that his dishonesty was manifested in "a one-off case", at a time when he was under psychological stress.

The court heard he was under a tremendous amount of pressure from work, his family, and expectations of his career.

In the time since, he has taken time to reflect, reprioritise and reorder his life, said Ms Kam.

He has also "followed his passion for the law by undertaking a range of law-related work", she said.

These include legal knowledge management, in-house legal counsel work, paralegal support work and legal publication particularly in building and construction law, which is his area of interest.

"In all these different roles he's kept himself abreast of legal developments and he has worked closely with clients as well as with members of the bar," said Ms Kam, who also showed the court testimonials from clients and senior members of the bar.

Mr Choy has since been certified as mentally and psychologically fit for active legal practice. He has not required psychiatric treatment since 2010.

"He has learned from his mistakes and is now fully recovered and rehabilitated," said the lawyer.

Mr Sanjiv Rajan Kumar, who acted for LawSoc, told the court that he felt Mr Choy was a suitable candidate for reinstatement, citing a testimonial that said the courts and the bar "would benefit hugely from Mr Choy's admission".

The judges said they were satisfied that the waiting period of 11 years, including Mr Choy's voluntary cessation of legal practice, was a sufficient length of time before reinstatement.

Justice Phang noted the certification by Mr Choy's psychiatrist that he was not in any depressive condition and was both mentally and psychologically fit to return to professional legal practice.

HE KEPT HIMSELF GAINFULLY EMPLOYED IN LEGAL INDUSTRY: JUDGE

He added that Mr Choy had "kept himself in gainful employment while demonstrating a willingness to continuously engage with the law".

However, he noted that a person previously struck off the roll for grossly improper conduct must be subjected to stricter scrutiny to be reinstated compared with a new entrant to the profession with no such record.

"It concerns the protection of the public interest and public confidence in the general reputation of the legal profession," said the judge.

However, he said there was a collective interest in the rehabilitation and redemption of applicants and a second chance should be offered to those "genuine in their contrition".

Mr Choy's act of dishonesty in the burglary offence "stemmed from an exceptional situation of psychiatric disorder", said the judge, adding that he is unlikely to suffer from a relapse.

However, four conditions were imposed to send a clear signal that the reinstatement of a disbarred advocate and solicitor "is a serious matter, and that practical measures will be put in place to protect the interests of potential clients".

Among the conditions, Mr Choy is prevented from assuming a position as a partner, director or sole proprietor for a year.

Mr Choy is currently looking at his options and will be returning to practice, his lawyer told the media after the hearing.

Mr Choy said in a statement through his lawyer that he has learned many lessons over the past decade.

“We often hear and learn best when pain speaks to us as a loudspeaker. I am very grateful to the court, the Law Society and the Attorney-General for giving me a second chance to practise law again," he said.

"This is a new chapter in my professional life and one where I am excited to be able to once again use the privileges accorded to lawyers to better contribute to society."

Source: CNA/ll

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