SINGAPORE: A lawyer was given a year's suspension on Wednesday (Aug 7) for mishandling more than S$138,000 entrusted to him by a client.
Mr Ooi Oon Tat of law firm Judy Cheng & Co (JCC) was handed the sanction by the Court of Three Judges after failing to make any written submissions for himself.
According to court documents, he had taken over Mr Kuntjoro Wibawa as his client from another lawyer, and a sum of S$138,148 was to be transferred to him for handling his legal matters.
However, instead of directing the money to be deposited into his client's account, he told Mr Kuntjoro to deposit the money into JCC's office account, which he did in February 2016.
To date, Mr Kuntjoro has not received full restitution of the money, and has suffered losses of about S$105,000.
A disciplinary tribunal found in October last year that Mr Ooi had breached Rule 3(1) of the Legal Profession (Solicitors' Accounts) Rules. He was supposed to put the money in his client's account without delay, but did not.
Mr Ooi, who has been a lawyer for 30 years, did not file closing submissions before the disciplinary tribunal despite being ordered to do so.
The tribunal found that he had wanted the funds to be in JCC's office account for his own convenience, and withdrew a total of S$40,000 from it.
Mr Ooi on Wednesday repeated in High Court the same arguments he had made orally before the tribunal - that his client did not pay him and that he was entitled to S$70,000 in fees.
The Law Society, represented by Ms Mimi Oh, urged the Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang and Justices Woo Bih Li and Quentin Loh to strike Mr Ooi off the rolls.
JUDGES REPEATEDLY PROMPT MR OOI
Justice Phang questioned Mr Ooi repeatedly on why he had not bothered to file any papers for his own hearing, given that he could be struck off the rolls.
Mr Ooi said he had been "going through a tough time" and felt "quite aggrieved" because he had "gone very far" for the client.
"You have not submitted any written submissions," said Justice Phang. "Is there any reason? You've not bothered filing anything."
"I feel aggrieved," Mr Ooi repeated.
"Is that a reason for not filing? You're a lawyer. You can represent yourself, you are legally trained, and yet you have not complied with procedures," said Justice Phang.
Mr Ooi said he had forgotten to bill his client for the S$70,000, and has examples of the work he did for him.
"Does all that work justify placing the funds in your office account for your own convenience?" Justice Phang questioned.
When Mr Ooi said he was entitled to the S$70,000, the judge said: "What you are entitled to is besides the point. If you are supposed to pay the money into the client account, you can't pay it into the office account."
He prompted Mr Ooi to address the court on the sanctions, as the Law Society was pushing for him to be struck off the rolls.
"Definitely I don't agree," said Mr Ooi. "That, I would say, is too draconian given the background. I would leave it to (the court). I would just say there should not be striking out in any case."
When the judge asked him if he even knew what the possible sanctions were, Mr Ooi said he was "quite saddened" by the whole thing and so had not "done much".
"You mean you don't know what the sanctions are?" questioned Justice Phang. "It will just take you five minutes to find out."
"It's just, the kind of feeling," said Mr Ooi. "Although I'm acting for myself, my career is at stake."
He admitted that he "fumbled in the matter" and was not proud of it.
Justice Phang said there were three possible types of sanctions to be taken - a monetary penalty, suspension and striking off.
He would have been struck off if dishonesty was proven, said the judge, but this was not the case, even though "there was some element of deceit".
GUILTY OF GROSSLY IMPROPER CONDUCT
The judge reiterated how critical and indispensable it was that all solicitors comply with the rules, so that the public is protected against unauthorised use of clients' money by lawyers.
He said Mr Ooi was guilty of "grossly improper conduct", and a monetary penalty was not appropriate in this case, as he had placed the funds in the account for his own convenience, did not advise his client properly nor give a proper account for it.
The amount involved was also fairly significant, said the judge, and although no dishonesty was established, there was, "at the very least, gross negligence".
Mr Ooi was a practitioner "of many years standing" and ought to have known the importance of complying with the rules, said Justice Phang.
"Before us, (he) showed no sense of contrition," he added.
He ordered Mr Ooi to bear the costs of the proceedings on the Law Society's behalf, to a tune of about S$12,000.
The judges prompted Mr Ooi, asking if he needed time to settle his other clients’ affairs, and Mr Ooi successfully requested for a month before the suspension takes effect.
After the hearing, Mr Kuntjoro, who was diagnosed with cancer at about the time the money was deposited, told the media that the sanction "had no deterrent effect for lawyers".
"He didn't do his job," said the man. "It can be repeated to other clients."
He had originally hired Mr Ooi to handle a case of overcharging by another lawyer in a lawsuit over his father's estate. The S$1.2 million bill was eventually reduced to S$100,000 on appeal by another lawyer who took over from Mr Ooi.
According to Mr Kuntjoro's personal assistant, a police report has been made over Mr Ooi's conduct and police investigations are ongoing.