Court of Appeal reserves judgment over complaint against Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer

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SINGAPORE – The Court of Appeal is considering a rare procedural issue that could affect whether lawyer Kwa Kim Li will face a disciplinary tribunal over a complaint that she failed to destroy the prior wills of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The complaint is one of four that Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, who are the executors of Mr Lee’s estate, had made to the Law Society in 2019 against Ms Kwa in relation to her handling of their father’s wills.

Ms Kwa helped Mr Lee Kuan Yew in drafting six wills between August 2011 and November 2012.

This complaint – referred to in court as the first complaint – alleges that she had failed to follow his instructions to destroy his superseded wills.

It arose from an e-mail Ms Kwa sent to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s three children after his death in 2015, in which she stated: “Each time (Mr Lee) signed a new will, he would ask me to destroy the old will. I have managed to put together the cancelled photocopies.”

On Wednesday (Jan 19), a five-judge Court of Appeal reserved judgment after hearing arguments that mostly dealt with the powers of the Law Society council to refer a matter back to an inquiry committee for reconsideration.

Under the law, complaints against lawyers are examined by an inquiry committee, which then makes recommendations to the Law Society council as to whether the complaint should proceed to be formally investigated by a disciplinary tribunal.

In Ms Kwa’s case, the inquiry committee issued a report in May 2020 recommending that two of the four complaints, including the first complaint, be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.

The council then posed some queries to the inquiry committee.

In a second report in August 2020, the inquiry committee changed its stance on the first complaint after hearing Ms Kwa’s explanations.

Among other things, she said she used the word “destroy” in a colloquial manner to explain the impact of revocation of a will to lay persons.

However, the inquiry committee stuck to its guns on the other complaint.

The Law Society decided to proceed with the second complaint.

But in April last year, the High Court ruled that two more complaints, including the first complaint, should be formally investigated.

With regard to the first complaint, High Court judge Valerie Thean said it was procedurally wrong for the Law Society to refer the matter back to the inquiry committee.

Justice Thean said that when an inquiry committee has recommended a formal investigation, the Law Society council had no power to refer the case back for reconsideration.

The Law Society then appealed with regard to the first complaint.

On Wednesday, Senior Counsel Gregory Vijayendran, representing the Law Society, argued that the council can still ask for a further report, even when an initial inquiry committee report recommended formal investigations.

He argued that the avenue for a further report was a safety net to catch errors and omissions in the first report.

Senior Counsel Abraham Vergis, acting for Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee, argued that Parliament did not expressly confer such a power to the council.

He argued that the council is obliged to determine that there should be a formal investigation once an inquiry committee has recommended such a course of action.

Arguments were also made as to whether “destroy” meant tearing up the wills.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon questioned what Ms Kwa meant, considering that she had attached copies of the “destroyed” wills in her e-mail to the siblings.

He also referred to a will that has the word “cancelled” stamped on all three pages.

Justice Chao Hick Tin asked Mr Vergis what the purpose of this particular complaint was.

Justice Chao asked: “Why are we creating such a monster problem out of something that is not a problem?”

Mr Vergis said the complaint was strictly about the failure to follow Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s express instructions.

He argued that when Ms Kwa used the word “destroy” in 2015, it must mean something more than revocation.

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