SINGAPORE: Attorney Lee Suet Fern has been suspended from the practice for 15 months after being found guilty of misconduct handling the final will of Singapore’s founding premier Lee Kuan Yew.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon wrote in Friday (November 20) ruling that Ms. Lee was guilty of the wrongdoing of “banning a lawyer and attorney.”
He also said her guilt was “at least moderately high” while the harm caused by the wrongdoing was “on the lower end of the moderate range.”
The decision was made by the Court of Three Judges, which consisted of Chief Justice Menon, Appellate Judge Judith Prakash, and Judge Woo Bih Li. The Court of Justice is the highest disciplinary body dealing with lawyer misconduct.
During the August hearings, the Law Society attempted to remove Ms. Lee from the list for professional misconduct.
Ms. Lee, the wife of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Mr. Lee Hsien Yang, has been an attorney for more than 37 years and is listed online as a director at Morgan Lewis Stamford.
Ms. Lee’s lawyers, Senior Counsels Kenneth Tan and former Attorney General Walter Woon, urged the court to dismiss all charges against them, arguing that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew knew what he was doing.
The Disciplinary Court previously found Ms. Lee guilty of two charges of grossly inappropriate lawyer practice.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew wrote seven wills, the first six of which were prepared by his attorney, Kwa Kim Li.
However, Ms. Kwa was not involved in the final will as Ms. Lee allegedly handled it because Ms. Kwa was absent and Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had asked that his first will be used as his final will. The will was drawn up and executed in December 2013.
The last will differed from the sixth will in that it had equal portions of the estate among Lee Kuan Yew’s three children – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Hsien Yang, and Dr. Lee Wei Ling – restored. In the sixth will, Dr. Lee Wei Ling has an additional share of 1/7 of the estate compared to her two brothers.
The latter will also reintroduce a clause calling for the late Mr. Lee’s house at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished.
READ: Law Society Tries Banning Lee Suet Fern for Lee Kuan Yew’s will. The defense calls for the charges to be dismissed
A draft of this last will was emailed to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew by Ms. Lee on December 16, 2013, with copying of Mr. Lee Hsien Yang and Ms. Kwa. Ms. Kwa “for some unknown reason” did not appear to have received the essential fact email.
The court found that there was no implicit guardianship between Ms. Lee and Mr. Lee Kuan Yew as Ms. Lee allegedly included Ms. Kwa as Mr. Lee’s regular attorney among the recipients of the email. Ms. Lee also asked Ms. Kwa to take care of drafting the Last Testament.
The Court also found that Ms. Lee made “two inconsistent statements” about the circumstances in which she sent the email.
The first explanation was that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had directed Ms. Lee to reset his will to the first.
This contradicted a second statement, accepted only during disciplinary proceedings, that he had instead given these instructions to Mr. Lee Hsien Yang, who then asked Ms. Lee to take the necessary steps to enforce these instructions.
READ: Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted in the will, Lee Suet Fern did not act as his attorney: defense on malpractice cases
The court found that the second statement was the true position as there was “no plausible reason” why Mr. Lee Kuan Yew “abruptly approached” Ms. Lee for assistance in returning to his first will as he did Ms. Kwa “considered” his lawyer on matters relating generally to his estate.
In addition, Ms. Lee would not have to copy Mr. Lee Hsien Yang into the email and call him to follow up on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s instruction. Also, she would not have to copy Ms. Kwa into the email to ask her to submit the draft last will that is attached to the email.
We also found that no further messages were received between Ms. Lee and Mr. Lee Kuan Yew after the email. Instead, they found themselves between Mr. Lee Hsien Yang and the elderly Mr. Lee.
“Lack of DILIGENCE”
The judges also denied Ms. Lee’s report that Mr. Lee Hsien Yang had sent her the draft last will, and she merely forwarded it to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew “without even opening it”.
The Court found that the draft was from Ms. Lee, who helped draft the First Testament, and not from Mr. Lee Hsien Yang.
Mr. Lee Hsien Yang also “was not telling the truth when he said that he was the one who forwarded the draft last will to Ms. Lee,” said Chief Justice Menon.
The Chief Justice also commented on her “remarkable lack of diligence” in determining whether she had actually retrieved the final draft of the First Testament in her possession. It turned out that it was actually not the final design that she had.
“Instead, she accepted it and represented it as such” to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, although she was unable to make such a representation “since the executed version of the First Testament was never in her hands.” said the Chief Justice.
Mr. Lee Hsien Yang later emailed Mr. Lee Kuan Yew that he could not contact Ms. Kwa and believed that she was not there and did not think it would make sense for the elderly Mr. Lee to wait for her to return is before executing the will.
Mr. Lee Hsien Yang added that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew only needed “a witness to sign” and Ms. Lee “could get one of her partners to produce an in-depth copy of the (last will) for execution and testimony.”
“SINGULAR FOCUS” ON LEE HSIEN YANG’S WISHES
Chief Justice Menon stated that since Ms. Kwa was not copied in that email, Ms. Lee would have known that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had been asked to execute the will based on the one in the email she had previously sent to continue the information provided.
He also noted that Ms. Lee “conformed to her husband’s position,” that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew only had to sign the final will in front of two witnesses.
This despite the fact that Ms. Lee “must have known or appreciated,” or at least must have known or appreciated, that there were some things that Ms. Kwa should have done as Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s attorney.
In weighing Ms. Lee’s culpability, the court considered several factors for a heavier sentence, including her “unique focus on getting what her husband wanted without considering (Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s) interests”.
The Court also pointed to Ms. Lee’s “considerable involvement in the swift execution of the Last Will, which contrasts with her notable lack of care in ensuring that (Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s) wishes were properly established and carried out, and that he was fully informed of all facts ”.
Nor did she attempt to contact Ms. Kwa or highlight the emails from which she had been excluded. As a result, Ms. Kwa had no reason to be concerned about the circumstances of the execution process.
Ms. Lee’s “significant experience” as a lawyer of more than 30 years “made her conduct completely unacceptable and inexcusable,” said Chief Justice Menon.
These factors were weighed against the lack of an implicit reservation between Ms. Lee and Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, “which somewhat weakened the level of trust[Mr. Lee Kuan Yew]had in (Ms. Lee).” However, this factor was “of limited weight” as the elderly Mr. Lee “was ultimately guided by Mr. Lee Hsien Yang with the knowledge of (Ms. Lee)” to rely solely on her representations of the Draft Last Testament, which was turned out to be untrue.
The court also ruled that Ms. Lee “has not acted dishonestly in dealings with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew,” although that factor was also of “reduced weight” since she acted with “a certain degree of dishonesty” in the disciplinary procedure in trying , downplaying their participation in the preparation and execution of the Last Testament.
LEE SUET FERN REPLIES TO THE COURT’S DECISION
In a statement posted on Mr. Lee Hsien Yang’s Facebook account, Ms. Lee said, “I do not agree with this decision. There was no basis that this case would even have started. “
She added that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew “knew what he wanted” and “got what he wanted”.
“The triple court did not determine that he was insane or out of control. He made the decision to return to his 2011 milestone after talking to his attorney Kwa Kim Li before I was hired to find a witness.
“Anyone can withdraw their own will while they are still alive. If that will wasn’t what Lee Kuan Yew wanted, he could easily have done another, as he had done several times before,” said Ms. Lee.
She added that neither Mr. Lee Kuan Yew nor his beneficiaries or Ms. Kwa had ever made a complaint.
“This case arose out of a complaint made years later by the Attorney General’s Chambers. Lee Hsien Loong submitted extensive submissions but did not appear as a witness or interrogate,” she said.
She added, “The triple court found that Lee Kuan Yew and I had no attorney-client relationship. The court found that my dealings with Lee Kuan Yew were not dishonest and that the will was not obtained by fraud or inappropriate influence.
“An estate for Lee Kuan Yew’s will was granted by the courts in 2015. At the urging of Lee Hsien Loong and Lucien Wong, an estate was sought before he became attorney general.”