Lee Suet Fern suspended 15 months by disciplinary body over handling of LKY's will

Corporate lawyer Lee Suet Fern says she supports her husband Lee Hsien Yang's move to join the Progress Singapore Party. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Corporate lawyer Lee Suet Fern says she supports her husband Lee Hsien Yang's move to join the Progress Singapore Party. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The Court of Three Judges has handed out a 15-month suspension to corporate lawyer Lee Suet Fern for her role in the handling of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s final will, after rejecting her appeal against a Disciplinary Tribunal’s (DT) verdict.

In a written judgment on Friday (20 November), the highest disciplinary body that deals with lawyers' misconduct found the 61-year-old guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor.

This despite the absence of an implied retainer between her and the late Lee, and that she had not acted dishonestly in her dealings with him.

Nevertheless, the Court of Three Judges said that her culpability in the matter was “at least moderately high”, as the late Lee “ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign”.

It added, “The fact that the Last Will and the First Will were materially similar was fortuitous, and does not discount the fact that the potential harm could have been far more severe than the actual harm that eventuated.”

Accordingly, it suspended Suet Fern from practice for 15 months.

Suet Fern is married to Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest child Lee Hsien Yang. She is the sister-in-law of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In a WhatsApp response to Yahoo News Singapore’s queries, Suet Fern said, “I disagree with this decision. There was no basis for this case to have even been initiated.”

She noted that the Court of Three found “no solicitor-client relationship existed” between her and the late Lee, and that the will had not been procured by “fraud or undue influence”. Furthermore, no complaint had ever been lodged by her father-in-law, nor by any of his beneficiaries or his personal lawyer for his various wills, Kwa Kim Li.

“This case arose from a complaint years later by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. Lee Hsien Loong made extensive submissions, but did not present himself as a witness and was not subject to cross-examination,” Suet Fern noted.

Background to the case

In February, Suet Fern, 61, was censured by a two-man DT for grossly improper professional conduct in her handling of the will in 2013. The DT was convened in January 2019.

Following a complaint filed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) against Suet Fern on 4 December 2018, the Law Society had laid two charges against her. Firstly, that she had failed to advance the late Lee’s interests unaffected by her own and/or her husband’s interest. Secondly, that she had failed to advise him to be independently advised in respect of a significant gift that he planned to give to Hsien Yang.

The DT called Suet Fern a “deceitful witness, who tailored her evidence to portray herself as an innocent victim who had been maligned”. The tribunal added that the conduct of Hsien Yang, who testified as a witness, was “equally deceitful”.

Suet Fern then lodged an appeal against the verdict, with her lawyers claiming that the DT had “cherry-picked” evidence in arriving at its conclusions. They added that Suet Fern merely played an “administrative role” in facilitating her father-in-law’s wishes.

It is the latest twist in the long-running Lee saga, which first erupted in June 2017 when Hsien Yang and his sister Wei Ling, 65, went public with their dispute over the fate of the old family home at 38 Oxley Road, accusing their older brother Hsien Loong, 68, of abusing the organs of state for his own benefit.

What is the appropriate sanction?

Given that there was no solicitor-client relationship between Suet Fern and the late Lee, the Court considered that disbarring her - as requested by the Law Society - would be disproportionate.

However, it maintained that a heavier sentence was apt, given several factors.

  • Suet Fern’s “singular focus” in achieving what her husband wanted, oblivious to Lee’s interests;

  • Her “considerable involvement” in ensuring the expeditious execution of the Last Will, which contrasted with her “remarkable lack of diligence” in ensuring that Lee’s wishes were properly ascertained and carried out, and that he was fully apprised of all the facts;

  • The fact that Suet Fern did not attempt to contact Kwa Kim Li until after the execution of the Last Will, and did not highlight to Ms Kwa the emails which she had been excluded from, with the result that there was no reason for Ms Kwa to have been concerned about the circumstances surrounding the execution process;

  • Suet Fern’s significant experience as a solicitor of more than 30 years’ standing, which rendered her conduct “wholly unacceptable and inexcusable”.

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