SINGAPORE: Two lawyers who face disciplinary action for overcharging will be suspended for three months each from January.
The penalty was handed down on Tuesday by Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang and V K Rajah.
They backed the findings of a disciplinary tribunal that Ang Chin Peng was guilty of misconduct between 1999 and 2004, while Martin Decruz was guilty of improper conduct between 2005 and 2007.
Ang and Decruz have to bear the costs of the court proceedings, as well as pay costs to the Law Society, which brought the charges against them.
They had grossly inflated the bills to about $566,000 when a court—based assessment showed that the amount should have been $170,000.
The complaints were filed by a grandson of Mr Quek Seng Kee and Madam Leong Siew Fong, whose estates were handled by the two lawyers.
The two lawyers argued that an agreement with their clients pegged the fee to an estate’s assets whose worth rose over the years.
The disciplinary tribunal maintained that the charges should be fair, based on the work done.
Ang and Decruz, who were partners of law firm ALD LLP which dissolved in July 2010, have about 20 years standing in the profession.
Justice Chao, who delivered the judgement of the High Court, pointed out that the level of overcharging amounted to grossly improper conduct.
None of the work done was in any sense complex.
He said the lawyers have an overriding duty to charge fairly and stressed that the final bill must not be grossly disproportionate to the time spent on the matter
As for the lawyers’ argument that they were deprived of a fair hearing as they were not given the opportunity to rebut the allegations before the disciplinary tribunal, Justice Chao said the disciplinary tribunal was clearly entitled to examine whether the fee agreements were fair and reasonable.
He said the lawyers had blatantly sought to rely on the oral fee agreements to render bills which were wholly out of proportion to the nature or the measure of the services they provided.
He said their conduct is "redolent of dishonesty and deceit, and threatens to bring the legal profession into disrepute".
"Such conduct must be regarded as grossly improper," he said.
Justice Chao noted that the total fees charged are three to four times more than the total amount eventually awarded after taxation.
In absolute figures, the total difference is around $400,000.
"Such a huge difference in the figures can only be regarded as egregious and can hardly be justified," he said.
"The fact that the executors and trustees of the two estates agreed to such an agreement merely demonstrates that they did not understand the extent of the legal services required and what were the appropriate fees for those services."
Justice Chao said the judges have no doubt that the lawyers had deliberately misled the clients to think that the proposed fees which the clients had agreed to were in accordance with the norm.
He added that their actions have affected the integrity of the profession.
The judges also noted that the errant lawyers have not shown any signs of remorse or contrition and "sought to strenuously argue that the two oral agreements provided them with a complete cover".
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