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

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

Lee Suet Fern and Walter Woon. (Photos: Morgan Lewis, RHT Law Taylor Wessing)

SINGAPORE: The Law Society (LawSoc) on Thursday (Aug 13) sought to have veteran lawyer Lee Suet Fern struck off the roll for professional misconduct over the handling of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's final will.

Mrs Lee, the wife of Lee Kuan Yew's son 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 Lee Kuan Yew knew what he was doing.

The Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body dealing with lawyers' misconduct, heard arguments from both sides for five hours on Thursday before reserving judgment. The decision will be released at a later date.

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

These are: By failing to advance Lee Kuan Yew's interests by preparing and arranging for the execution of his will when a third of Lee Kuan Yew's estate was to be given to her husband, and by failing to advise Lee Kuan Yew to be independently advised in respect of this one-third of his estate her husband stood to gain.

Lee Kuan Yew had written seven wills, the first six of which were prepared by his lawyer 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 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 Lee Kuan Yew's three children - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, and reintroduced the clause asking for the late Mr Lee’s house at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished.

The disciplinary tribunal had found that Mrs Lee made Lee Kuan Yew sign this will "urgently" without the presence or involvement of Ms Kwa, in direct contravention of rules governing solicitors that prohibit lawyers from preparing wills when their family members stand to get "significant gifts" under the will.

SHE MERELY FORWARDED THE WILL: DEFENCE

However, Mrs Lee's lawyers argued that she had merely forwarded a copy of the first will that she had obtained from her husband Lee Hsien Yang, and was not involved in actually handling the will. 

Therefore, she did not act as his lawyer and there was no breach of any rules and no sanctions should be called for.

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

Even if there was a technical breach of the rules, there should be no sanction, argued Prof Woon.

Referring to Lee Kuan Yew as MM or Minister Mentor, Prof Woon said: "(Even if there's a) technical breach ... it still goes back to the question, in that case, is there any meaningful sanction? MM was himself a lawyer. He was a brilliant lawyer. A will is not a complex document. He read it, he understood it."

He said Lee Kuan Yew had told his personal assistant to inform his regular lawyer Ms Kwa after signing the final will that this was the agreement among his children.

"It's quite clear MM knew what he was doing. There is no reason for imposition of sanctions of any sort under the Legal Profession Act," said Prof Woon, who made his arguments via Zoom before Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Justices Judith Prakash and Woo Bih Li, with Lee Hsien Yang attending as an observer.

Prof Woon also criticised the findings of the disciplinary tribunal, saying that its case that Lee Kuan Yew had been tricked was "improbable in the extreme", and saying it was unacceptable for the tribunal to criticise Mrs Lee and her husband's integrity without clear evidence to support its conclusions.

"The theory of the case propounded by the disciplinary tribunal is improbable in the extreme, that MM was tricked, that he was a frail 90-year-old man, that they rushed him into signing a will he did not want to sign," said Prof Woon.

"The truth was that (Mrs Lee) forwarded the will and she got members of her firm to stand by. Anyone who has dealt with MM would understand him. He was not known to be a patient man. If he wanted the will, they were ready. 

"He read the will, he signed the will, initialled on every page, called for it the following day, told his personal assistant to send it to (Ms Kwa) and tell her it's the agreement among the siblings," said Prof Woon.

"The inescapable inference is that this is exactly what MM wants. If this is the case, the disciplinary tribunal was wrong to criticise (Mrs Lee) and accuse her of lying, wrong to criticise Lee Hsien Yang and accuse him of lying."

The disciplinary tribunal had found Mrs Lee to be a "deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned".

It also called Lee Hsien Yang's conduct "equally deceitful", saying that he had "lied to the public" and to the tribunal, trying to "hide how he and his wife had misled his own father, Mr Lee (Kuan Yew), on the last will".

Prof Woon said LawSoc had not proven that Mrs Lee was Lee Kuan Yew's lawyer, arguing that she was instead functioning as a wife of his son, who happened to have a law firm.

TRIBUNAL'S FINDING DISHONOURS MEMORY OF LEE KUAN YEW: WALTER WOON

"If we look at the totality of the evidence, knowing that MM would have understood (the will), there is no case for the imposition of sanctions," argued Prof Woon. "The disciplinary tribunal's finding that he was a 90-year-old frail man who didn't understand his will despite reading and rereading it ... (he) was basically a dotard, that is what the tribunal is saying."

"May I say this dishonours the memory of Lee Kuan Yew. You are saying to the world that he was a doddering old dotard. And this is unacceptable. All the charges should be dismissed, every single one."

He added that Lee Kuan Yew's final will was "not a new will" but an old one previously signed in 2011 and deliberated on with his family and his lawyer.

Addressing the charge that said Mrs Lee should have advised Lee Kuan Yew to get independent advice, Prof Woon said: "What was she supposed to advise? Are you sure you want to give a one-third share to my husband?

"To go to MM and say - I can't do this, you need to get independent legal advice is actually insulting to his intelligence. It implies he doesn't know what he was doing. He would've exploded. The sound of the explosion would've been heard all the way to the Istana."

He said LawSoc and the disciplinary tribunal had been "concentrating on the trees without appreciating the forest", saying it was not sufficient just to show that there was a breach, but that the conduct was sufficient to warrant sanctions.

LawSoc's lead counsel, WongPartnership's Koh Swee Yen, urged the court to uphold the tribunal's findings and impose the most severe sanctions on Mrs Lee.

TRIBUNAL FOUND LEE SUET FERN LACKING IN CREDIBILITY: LAWSOC

Ms Koh urged the court to look at the tribunal's findings on Mrs Lee's and her husband's "lack of credibility".

The tribunal had found their explanations for changing positions ranging from "improbable to patently contrived to downright dishonest".

In particular, the argument that Lee Hsien Yang had been the one who forwarded the will to his wife was a new contention that came up only before the tribunal and not before then, with no explanation on why it was raised only later.

"What really aggravates this is the fact that (Mrs Lee) and her husband were able to produce emails back in 2013, but did not produce any emails that show there was this act of Lee Hsien Yang forwarding the will to Lee Suet Fern," said Ms Koh. 

She pointed to the context of LawSoc having to apply for documents that Mrs Lee had but "chose not to produce", and highlighted the tribunal's finding that Mrs Lee "suppressed material evidence to prevent (the) truth from coming to light".

What Mrs Lee should have done at that point in time in December 2013 was to wait for Ms Kwa to return instead of going ahead to forward the will to Lee Kuan Yew.

Ms Koh argued that Mrs Lee created a situation where Lee Kuan Yew's usual lawyer was "displaced" from the preparation and execution of his last will, leaving herself as the only lawyer in the situation.

LawSoc's stand is that Mrs Lee took instructions from Lee Kuan Yew, but Mrs Lee's lawyers disagree with this, saying that the instructions he had given were to his son Lee Hsien Yang and there was no evidence that Lee Kuan Yew had corresponded directly with Mrs Lee other than the email Mrs Lee sent to him, forwarding the will he requested.

The judges repeatedly grilled both LawSoc's lawyer and Mrs Lee's lawyers, taking issue with multiple arguments put forth by both sides.

Justice Prakash asked Ms Koh to remember the charges and not put forth a different case, while Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon disagreed with Prof Woon that LawSoc had to prove not just a breach of rules, but that what was done "is dishonourable".

While Prof Woon argued about the finer points of what may or may not have mattered to Lee Kuan Yew in his final will, Chief Justice Menon stressed: "This is precisely why the law imposes the duties it imposes in the context of wills - it's because the people who are affected are usually not around to stand up and say what mattered or what didn't matter to them!"

The hearing came days after Mrs Lee's son, Li Shengwu, said he would pay a S$15,000 fine for contempt of court, but insisted that he did not admit guilt.

Source: CNA/ll(nc)

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