Saturday, 18 April 2015

Lawyers who refused to return client RM4.9mil house sale struck off rolls

Singapore's Supreme Court.

Latest case is second instance of lawyers being disbarred in two weeks

SINGAPORE — Two senior lawyers were today (April 13) struck off the roll for taking advantage of a client who had transferred S$1.8 million to their wives for safekeeping.

Mr Manjit Singh Kirpal Singh and Mr Sree Govind Menon had claimed that the money paid by Ms Bernadette Rankine was a gift, and had refused to return the money when asked.

After Ms Rankine lodged a complaint with the Law Society, the duo fought proceedings against them, alleging bias by the disciplinary panel president and filing judicial reviews to challenge decisions of the Chief Justice.

Today, the Court of Three Judges – comprising Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justices Judith Prakash and Tay Yong Kwang – ruled that the lawyers had been dishonest and ordered their disbarment. “In cases of proven dishonesty, a solicitor will invariably be struck off the roll, regardless of the solicitor’s mitigating circumstances,” the judges wrote.

Mr Singh was admitted to the Bar in 1977 and Mr Menon was admitted in 1998. Ms Rankine had approached Mr Singh for legal advice in 2009, when she wanted to sell her property in Joan Road to live off sale proceeds after breaking up with a Malaysian businessman. She feared her ex-beau would try to prevent the sale of the property, which he did by lodging a caveat against it.

In 2010, the lawyers helped in getting the caveat discharged and Ms Rankine netted S$6.9 million from the sale of the property. She received a S$5 million cheque from the lawyers’ firm and used another S$50,000 to pay her personal assistant. Mr Singh handed her a cheque worth S$1.8 million and the lawyers advised her to issue cheques of the same amount to their wives for safekeeping and future legal fees, which she did.

In Dec 2010, Ms Rankine complained to the Law Society after they refused to return the money. She withdrew the complaint in Nov 2012 after getting her money back, but the Law Society pursued its charges against the duo.

The Society found Ms Rankine’s characterisation of the S$1.8 million payment to be convincing and believable, and said the two lawyers had acted dishonourably and showed no remorse for reprehensible conduct.

The duo had embarked on an elaborate scheme to cheat Ms Rankine, while ensuring the payment could not be traced back to their firm’s account, argued the Law Society, represented by Mr P E Ashokan. Instead of directly transferring the S$1.8 million from the law firm’s account to that of his wife and Mr Menon’s wife, Mr Singh had used Ms Rankine as a conduit so that things would appear above-board, noted the Court of Three Judges.

The judges noted that Ms Rankine had already paid substantial legal fees to the duo and “a gift of this magnitude to a solicitor with whom the client had no previous dealings … simply defies belief”.

Mr Singh also faced a second charge for misusing a S$20,000 cashier’s order from Ms Rankine to pay for an unrelated matter, which the judges said “underlines his lack of...integrity and trustworthiness”.

This is the second time in two weeks that lawyers have been disbarred — veteran lawyer Pascal Netto was struck off the roll last week for professional misconduct that included unauthorised borrowing from a client’s firm.

By Neo Chai Chin chaichin@mediacorp.com.sg

Woman takes due to court over refusal to return RM4.9mil from house sale

TWO lawyers who refused to return S$1.8mil (RM4.9mil) to a client were struck off the rolls on April 13.

The client had transferred the money to their wives for what she thought was safekeeping.

Manjit Singh, a lawyer of 37 years, and Sree Govind Menon, a lawyer of 16, were partners in the firm, Manjit Govind & Partners.

In disbarring them, the Court of Three Judges, with power to censure, suspend or strike lawyers off the rolls for professional misconduct, noted that the pair had acted dishonestly.

javascript:void(0); In 2009, Singh was hired by Bernadette Rankine, then an art gallery owner, to handle the sale of her house in Joan Road, off Thomson Road, which was sold for S$12mil (RM32.5mil).

She had decided to sell the property and live off the proceeds after ending her 13-year relationship with Malaysian businessman Amin Shah.

But her former boyfriend lodged a caveat against the property to block the sale. In February 2010, the caveat was lifted and the net sales proceeds of S$6.9mil (RM18.7mil) held by the law firm were ordered to be released to her.

Singh gave her a cheque for S$5mil (RM13.6mil) as well as S$50,000 (RM135,000) for her assistant’s wages.

A few days later, he gave her a cheque for S$1.8mil, while she in turn issued two cheques, one for S$1.6mil (RM4.3mil) to Singh’s wife and the other for S$200,000 (RM544,000) to Menon’s wife.

Singh had advised her to place the money with their wives for safekeeping, saying that if her former boyfriend launched more legal action against her, her money would be frozen and she would not have the means to pay for lawyers.

Nine months later, she asked them to return the money. When they refused, she complained to the Law Society. They have since returned the full sum.

In April last year, a disciplinary tribunal found the pair guilty of misconduct – Singh for advising her to pay the money to the wives and then refusing to return it, and Menon for agreeing with the advice.

The pair contended that the money was a gift from Rankine but the tribunal found this “inherently absurd”.

Yesterday, the court agreed, saying it was unlikely that Rankine, who needed money for pending legal matters, would give away one quarter of her key asset to the wives of the two lawyers she had known for less than six months and to whom she had already paid fees. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network\

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