Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Singapore

Court of Appeal affirms dismissal of complaint against Lee Kuan Yew's lawyer over handling of earlier wills

Court of Appeal affirms dismissal of complaint against Lee Kuan Yew's lawyer over handling of earlier wills

Madam Kwa Kim Li leaving the Supreme Court on Dec 3, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

SINGAPORE: The Court of Appeal on Monday (Mar 14) affirmed the determination by the Council of the Law Society to dismiss a complaint made against the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li.

The complaint was one of four made against Ms Kwa by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who are Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s children and the executors of his estate.

Referred to by the court as the “first complaint”, it alleges that Ms Kwa failed to comply with Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s instructions to destroy his six superseded wills.

The other complaints against Ms Kwa are:

  • That she wrongfully disclosed privileged and confidential documents to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong without the approval of the executors (the second complaint);
  • That she failed to keep proper contemporaneous records of the instructions she received from Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the advice she gave him (the third complaint); and
  • That she gave the executors of the estate a false and misleading impression in letters dated Jun 4, 2015 and Jun 22, 2015, by failing to mention certain discussions between her and Mr Lee Kuan Yew (the fourth complaint).

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, died on Mar 23, 2015.

Ms Kwa, the managing partner of law firm Lee & Lee, prepared a total of six wills for Mr Lee Kuan Yew between Aug 20, 2011, and Nov 2, 2012. She was not involved in the preparation of his seventh and final will.

The final will restored equal shares of the estate among Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s three children, and reintroduced a clause asking for his house at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished.

Lawyer Lee Suet Fern - Mr Lee Hsien Yang's wife - was suspended from practice in 2020 after being found guilty of misconduct over the handling of the final will.

EVENTS LEADING TO THE APPEAL

An inquiry committee convened by the Law Society recommended in its first report on May 8, 2020 that the first and second complaints should be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.

It said the third and fourth complaints were not made out and should be dismissed.

The Council of the Law Society posed further queries on the first and second complaints and referred the matter back to the committee for further consideration.

In the committee’s second report of Aug 3, 2020, it changed its stance on the first complaint, recommending that it be dismissed.

It maintained its initial position that the second complaint should be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.

Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang then applied to the High Court seeking an order for the Law Society to apply to the Chief Justice to appoint a disciplinary tribunal for a formal investigation into the conduct of Ms Kwa in relation to each of those complaints.

Their application was granted by Justice Valerie Thean on Apr 21 last year for the first and fourth complaints. The judge dismissed the third complaint.

Justice Thean’s decision on the first complaint was the subject of this appeal by the Law Society to the Court of Appeal.

WHAT THE COURT OF APPEAL DECIDED

The decision by a panel of five judges was delivered by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. The court said there were two issues raised by the appeal.

The first issue was whether the Council of the Law Society has the power to refer a matter back to the inquiry committee for consideration, when the committee has already determined that there should be a formal investigation by a disciplinary tribunal.

This involved the interpretation of a section of the Legal Profession Act governing the disciplinary process when a complaint is made.

The court ruled that based on the “plain words” of that section of the Act, the Council of the Law Society has the power to do so.

The second issue for the court to decide was whether a prima facie case of misconduct by Ms Kwa in relation to the first complaint warranted a formal investigation by a disciplinary tribunal.

The judgment by the Court of Appeal stated that the inquiry committee's conclusion that there was no prima facie case with respect to the first complaint was “amply justified by the evidence”.

The court said the essence of the first complaint was that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had instructed Ms Kwa to “physically destroy” the earlier wills, in the sense that there would be no remaining trace of the wills.

Ms Kwa explained to the committee that the word “destroy” was her own term, and that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had never used it in the context of their discussions about the superseded wills.

“She further explained that when she used that word, she did so to refer to the act of invalidating a will, and we understand this in the sense of destroying its legal force,” stated the judgment.

“She also explained that (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) would often ask her about the contents of his previous wills and she then needed to be able to refer to the prior wills.”

The court said there was no evidence to suggest that Mr Lee Kuan Yew “intended or instructed” that his wills were to be physically destroyed.

“In our judgment, there is no basis to challenge the conclusions of the inquiry committee. There is in fact no factual controversy at all because there is no evidence to suggest that (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) intended that his wills were to be destroyed physically, so long as they had been properly invalidated,” said the Court of Appeal judgment.

There was also “no real doubt” that he knew Ms Kwa retained old copies of his wills that were invalidated but not physically destroyed, as evident from consultations where he would ask about the contents of the prior wills.

“It follows that there is no prima facie case of sufficient gravity such that the matter should be referred to the disciplinary tribunal,” the Court of Appeal said.

Lawyer Abraham Vergis, who represented Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, told CNA: “This decision of a five-member Court of Appeal provides signal guidance on a fundamental issue - the continuing role that the Council of the Law Society plays in reviewing inquiry committee reports and seeking clarifications wherever errors and omissions are detected.”

Source: CNA/dv(mi)

Advertisement

Also worth reading

Advertisement