A Singapore lawyer has been disbarred for misleading a mentally ill woman into giving him a gift of over $370,000 and also naming him the sole beneficiary of her will.
In its Monday order disbarring lawyer James Wan, a three-judge panel of Singapore’s Court of Appeal noted that it was the first time the court had considered a breach of Rule 46 of Singapore’s Legal Profession Rules. The rule states that when a client intends to make a significant gift to a lawyer, that lawyer must advise the client to seek independent counsel concerning the gift.
The panel, comprising Justices Chao Hick Tin, Andrew Phang Boon Leong, and V K Rajah, clarified that the requirement stemmed from the lawyer’s position of influence over the client. Because of this position, a lawyer receiving a gift from a client has an “ethical duty on him to remove, as far as he can, any vestiges of influence (or the appearance thereof) he might have over his client by virtue of their relationship,” the judges wrote.
The court further stressed that, in advising a client to seek independent counsel on a gift, lawyers must also clearly explain the ethical reasons behind the rule.
Wan had acted for 73-year-old Chiang Choy Peng on the sale of 18 Maria Avenue in Singapore, a house she had owned since 1961. In 1970, Chiang was found wandering the streets and was soon after diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for the next three decades.
In 2001, Wan began representing Chiang on a pro bono basis and subsequently arranged the sale of her property for $773,119. He kept $370,455.00 for himself, claiming it was gift from his client. Wan also claimed she had given him power of attorney to redraft her will and leave all of her assets to him rather than her four children.
The court concluded that Wan had misled Chiang into believing the house would not command much more than $400,000 because it was in a state of disrepair, even though it had been appraised for $886,000. The property, located in Singapore’s posh Singlap neighborhood, is almost certainly worth even more today.
Based on Wan’s misinformation, the judges said, she agreed to allow him to keep anything the property fetched beyond $403,000. Wan, who was represented by Wong Siew Hong of Singapore firm Eldan Law, had admitted breaching Rule 46 but argued that his missteps were the result of incompetence instead of dishonesty.
But the court rejected this argument. Allowing that Wan might have initially represented Chiang out of a sense of charity towards Chiang, the judges said they “had no doubt that this charity subsequently gave way to a desire to enrich himself financially” by taking advantage of his client’s mental illness and lack of sophistication.
Email: jseah@alm.com .