CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify the District Judge’s comments.
The owner of a debt collection company who used fake legal letters in pursuing debtors was sentenced to 30 weeks’ jail and fined $80,000 at the State Courts on Wednesday (9 January).
Tan Kian Tiong, 52, had earlier pleaded guilty to 60 charges, including 40 breaches of the Legal Profession Act and 20 breaches of the Limited Liability Partnerships Act (LLPA). Another 1,083 charges under both acts were taken into consideration for sentencing.
Fake ‘legal letters’ sent to 387 debtors
According to court documents, Tan is the sole proprietor of Double Ace Associates (DAA), a firm which collected debts on behalf of clients. He had been in the business for 20 years.
The firm would charge its clients a 30 per cent commission on successful debts collected, along with a service fee to expenses incurred.
Over nearly two years, Tan’s firm sent letters of demand to 387 of his clients’ debtors. He obtained templates for these letters from the internet or from physical copies of other letters sent by law firms.
Each of the letters demanded that the debtor make full payment within seven days to avoid legal action being taken by DAA’s clients.
The letterheads would also feature the phrase “Debt management and legal consultants” under the words “Double Ace Associates LLP”. The term “consultants” implied that either Tan or DAA was qualified and authorised to act as an advocate or solicitor, according to the prosecution.
The acronym “LLP”, which stands for Limited Liability Partnership, also gave the false impression that DAA was registered under the LLPA.
According to the prosecution, the presentation of the letters in such a fashion gave their recipients the impression that had been sent by a law firm.
In the charges he admitted to, Tan’s firm used the templates for 20 letters of demand sent between 14 October 2013 to 7 September 2015.
One of the letters’ recipients referred it to his lawyer for legal advice. The lawyer later lodged a complaint with the Law Society, which then referred the matter to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Following a second complaint by another recipient, the Commercial Affairs Department commenced investigations into DAA.
Accused’s ‘intent was clear’: DPP
The prosecution urged the court to jail Tan eight months and fine him $80,000.
“(Tan’s) intent was clear – he was illicitly using the threat of legal action as a means to compel these debtors to pay up,” said Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Teo Guan Siew.
The DPP added that Tan should be stiffly punished in order to deter “like-minded” potential offenders.
“The public must be able to distinguish between genuine lawyers and persons who are simply masquerading as them,” said Teo.
“Otherwise, members of the public may easily be duped into believing that a person is a qualified person, to their detriment,” he added. Teo noted that this would hurt people’s confidence in the legal profession and rule of law.
However, Tan’s lawyer Lee Wei Liang maintained that his client had no intention of deceiving the letters’ recipients.
In fact, Tan’s firm would hand its cases over to genuine lawyers for further action relating to debtors who did not pay up.
Tan had been unaware that he was in contravention of the law when he used the templates, said Lee.
Noting that Tan’s error was in deciding to use the words from the template, the lawyer added that all the other charges resulted from this single decision. Lee asked for a $120,000 fine for Tan.
District Judge (DJ) Kenneth Yap noted that Tan’s actions could have applied pressure on the debtors.
“The actions of the accused have also impugned the integrity and efficacy of the legal profession as a whole,” said the judge, noting that the reputation of the legal profession was at stake.
“A member of public should be entitled to rely on an assertion that an advocate and solicitor has the requisite qualifications to practice, which in turn carries the assurance that he or she would act in accordance with the ethical and legal duties that apply to the profession.”
“It would be entirely undesirable for a lay person to have to peruse the rolls or to check with the Law Society to verify that the lawyer is who he says he is,” added the judge.
Tan intends to appeal against his sentence.
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