SINGAPORE: A disciplinary tribunal has found lawyer Lee Suet Fern guilty of grossly improper professional conduct in the preparation and execution of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s final will.
The tribunal said in a report released last week that Mrs Lee, who has 37 years’ experience and is Mr Lee’s daughter-in-law, created a draft will for Mr Lee, which became his seventh and final will. She is married to Mr Lee’s youngest son, Hsien Yang.
The tribunal found that with her husband, Mrs Lee made founding prime minister Mr Lee sign the will “urgently” without the presence or involvement of his usual lawyer, Ms Kwa Kim Li. His first to sixth wills were prepared by Ms Kwa, a partner in the law firm Lee & Lee.
READ: Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted in will, Lee Suet Fern not acting as his lawyer: Defence in legal misconduct case
Mrs Lee’s conduct was in direct contravention of rules governing solicitors that expressly prohibits a lawyer from preparing a will when a family member of the lawyer is going to get a significant gift under the will, according to the tribunal’s report, which was seen by CNA.
She also misled her father-in-law on the terms of the last will that he was going to sign in 2013. His final will included a clause on the demolition of his house at 38 Oxley Road, which was included in previous wills, but removed subsequently.
The house was at the heart of a public spat among the Lee siblings in 2017. The demolition clause was in early versions of the will but was subsequently removed.
“The facts expose an unsavoury tale,” the tribunal said, adding that Mrs Lee and her husband on Dec 16, 2013, persuaded the late Mr Lee, who was then aged 90 and in poor health, to sign a new will without his usual lawyer to advise him.
Charges of professional misconduct against Mrs Lee were brought by The Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) after the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) made a complaint. On Feb 13 last year, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon appointed the disciplinary tribunal to hear and investigate the matter.
Her actions were of sufficient gravity that the matter will be referred to the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body to deal with lawyers' misconduct.
If found guilty, Mrs Lee could face a fine, suspension or be disbarred.
In her defence, Mrs Lee's legal team argued that she was not acting as a lawyer in the preparation of the final will, and Mr Lee knew what he wanted, which was to revert to a previous will distributing equal shares of his estate to his children.
Mrs Lee’s lawyers also asserted in written submissions that the LawSoc had not proven its charges against her.
THE BREACH OF PROFESSIONAL DUTIES
The disciplinary tribunal found that Mrs Lee did not alert and advise Mr Lee on the differences between the draft last will she gave him and his sixth will.
For instance, Mr Lee was not advised that the draft will "inserted a Demolition Clause (which was not in the Penultimate Will), even though three days earlier, Mr Lee was not going to have such a clause".
The rules require that Mrs Lee should have taken Mr Lee through the terms of the draft will. However, after some initial advice, she did not speak with Mr Lee again, the tribunal said.
“Instead, she focused on getting the last will executed quickly, with undue haste,” the tribunal said. She should have also known to advise Mr Lee to get independent legal advice, it added.
The tribunal called Mrs Lee a "deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned", describing this as a facade.
"Before us, she lied or became evasive whenever she thought it was to her benefit to lie or evade."
Her husband’s conduct was "equally deceitful", it said.
"He tried to hide how he and his wife had misled his own father, Mr Lee, on the last will. He had no qualms about making up evidence as he went along. We found him to be cynical about telling the truth."
During proceedings, Mrs Lee and her husband tried to “explain away” their conduct, the contemporaneous documentary evidence and their previous statements, according to the report.
“Their explanations ranged from the improbable, to the patently contrived, to the downright dishonest,” it said.
Among the evidence from the couple the tribunal found to be untrue was that Mrs Lee did not draft the final will, and that Mr Lee had no reason to consider Mrs Lee as his lawyer.
Mr Lee had specifically asked twice who drafted his will, and was told both times that it was Mrs Lee.
The tribunal said that Mrs Lee said that Ms Kwa had drafted the last will.
“In essence, an elaborate edifice of lies was presented, both on oath and through their public and other statements,” the tribunal found.
The tribunal also said Mrs Lee and her husband arranged for Mr Lee to revoke the penultimate will in its entirety, and arranged for him to execute a new will.
They then arranged for Mr Lee to sign the last will “urgently”, 16 hours later. They made all the arrangements for the last will, it added.
The couple told Mr Lee that he should not wait for Ms Kwa, and persuaded him to sign the final will without Ms Kwa.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang also told his father that his wife’s law firm, Stamford Law, could handle the matter. He also removed Ms Kwa from the email correspondence before Mr Lee agreed to use another lawyer for his final will, cutting her out of discussions.
“They took steps to have lawyers from the Respondent’s (Mrs Lee’s) law firm, Stamford Law, engross and witness the last will for Mr Lee, hurriedly,” the disciplinary tribunal said in its report.
THE DRAFT WILL IN QUESTION
Mrs Lee had sent a draft of what eventually became the final will on Dec 16, 2013.
At the time, Mrs Lee and her husband knew that Ms Kwa Kim Li, who prepared all of Mr Lee’s six previous wills, was likely to be traveling and might not respond, according to legal documents.
In the email reproduced in the documents, Mrs Lee wrote that “this is the original agreed will”, which referred to the first will, prepared by Ms Kwa, and executed on Aug 20, 2011. However, the tribunal said that the draft that Mrs Lee attached was not the first will.
According to the documents, the “main differences” between the late Mr Lee’s preceding will and the draft that Mrs Lee sent her father-in-law that eventually became the final will were that it excluded a gift-over clause in the event that one of Mr Lee’s children died before he did, and a provision for his eldest son Mr Lee Hsien Loong to pay for the upkeep of 38 Oxley road while Dr Lee Wei Ling was in occupation.
The draft also gave Dr Lee Wei Ling an unfettered right to stay at 38 Oxley; in the sixth will, this was conditional upon Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s consent.
It also included a clause on the demolition of the late Mr Lee’s house on 38 Oxley Road.
At the time of the public spat between the siblings, the current prime minister, in a statutory declaration to a ministerial committee set up by the Cabinet to consider options for the house, expressed “grave concerns” about the events surrounding the making of his father’s last will, which stated his wish for his house to be demolished.
As of Dec 13, 2013, Mr Lee instructed Ms Kwa to give his three children an equal share of his Estate, four days before the last will was signed on Dec 17, 2013.
Mr Lee’s decision was to keep to the terms of the sixth will, including the change, which was to be made through an additional document meant to be attached to his original will.
Mrs Lee’s email shows that she gave equal shares to the siblings. However, she did not find out what Mr Lee agreed with Ms Kwa, or confirm with Mr Lee that he indeed wanted to make the changes to the penultimate will, or check if there were any other changes he wanted to make.
“This is in direct contravention of the legal requirements on solicitors,” the tribunal said.
WHY CHANGE THE WILL?
The tribunal also said that Mr Lee’s conduct in respect of the last will was “quite different” from the care he seemed to have exercised a few days earlier, when he was discussing amendments to his sixth will with Ms Kwa.
The tribunal found that there was no evidence on why Mr Lee “suddenly decided to completely disregard” what he had agreed with Ms Kwa on these matters three or four days earlier, revoke his penultimate will in its entirety, and sign a new one.
There was also no evidence on why the first will was chosen, when it had been superceded by five wills. The couple said that Mr Lee decided this himself, the tribunal said.
“We only have their word for this - and on this case, in many aspects where there was other evidence, it was clear that both of them were lying and had acted dishonestly,” it added.
MRS LEE'S RESPONSE
After the finding was publicised, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter Lee Wei Ling said on Facebook that the disciplinary tribunal’s report was “a travesty”.
She said her father “knew full well what he was doing” and “was clear in his decision for the will”.
“Lee Kuan Yew on his own drafted an amendment to the will (a codicil) and executed it 2 weeks later,” she wrote. The post was shared by her brother Lee Hsien Yang.
Meanwhile, Mrs Lee’s response was shared by Lee Hsien Yang in a Facebook post.
“I disagree with the Disciplinary Tribunal’s report and will fight this strongly when it is heard in open court. Any member of the public can obtain the entire record of the closed-door proceedings of the Tribunal from the Law Society. I urge the public to look at these and come to their own independent conclusions,” she said.