Back in August, when we were still recording over 100 new Covid-19 cases every day, the Law Society wanted to disbar a Singaporean lawyer who had practised for 37 years.
When you first heard this, your only response was a half-hearted “oh”, after which you carried on with your day.
But then you found out that Lee Kuan Yew’s will was involved, and you were like “oh.”
The lawyer in question, Lee Suet Fern, ended up being suspended for 15 months instead.
So, who is this lawyer, and how did she end up getting suspended from practising law?
Here are 10 facts about the 62-year-old’s suspension, including her response.
She is PM Lee’s Sister-in-law
While there are many Lees in Singapore, one particular Lee family is a little more famous.
The accused, Lee Suet Fern, is married to Lee Hsien Yang, the youngest of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s three children.
She is a lawyer with 37 years of experience.
It All Began With a Dispute Over Property
Specifically, a dispute over 38 Oxley Road.
This property was the residence of Lee Kuan Yew from the 1940s until his death in 2015.
In 2017 it became the cause of a dispute among Lee’s children – specifically, PM Lee, Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling.
The dispute was over the house’s use and demolition.
The former prime minister made his intentions over the house clear in his will, but some claim that this was a result of manipulation.
Lee Suet Fern Was Accused of Manipulating Lee Kuan Yew’s Will
Mrs Lee, who is listed online as a director at Morgan Lewis Stamford, was accused of manipulating Mr Lee’s will for her and her husband’s benefit.
Before Lee Kuan Yew passed away, he had drafted a total of seven wills, the first six of which were prepared by his lawyer Kwa Kim Li.
Mr Lee had also reportedly asked for his first will to be used as his final will.
- it restored the equal shares of Lee Kuan Yew’s estate among his three children
- it reintroduced the clause asking for Mr Lee’s house at 38 Oxley Road to be demolished
- a gift-over clause was excluded
- a provision for Mr Lee Hsien Loong to pay for the maintenance of the house while his sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling stays at the house
- an unrestricted right for Dr Lee Wei Ling to stay at the house, as compared to a conditional right in the previous version
After sending a draft of this new will, the court accused Mrs Lee of acting under her husband’s instructions to complete the execution of the will in an “unseemly rush”.
The will was signed 16 hours after it was sent to Mr Lee.
Ms Kwa, the lawyer who drafted Mr Lee’s first six wills, was left out of the emails. Mrs Lee also failed to inform Ms Kwa about what had happened after the will was signed.
While the court determined that Mrs Lee acted at the behest of her husband, she arranged for her colleagues to witness the signing of Mr Lee’s will before he had a chance to respond to Lee Hsien Yang’s suggestion to proceed.
The court described her conduct as “especially unsatisfactory”, adding that it showed a “remarkable lack of diligence” on her part in ensuring Mr Lee’s wishes were properly met.
Put simply, Mrs Lee was accused of misleading Mr Lee on the terms of his will and rushing Mr Lee into signing the will.
Her Lawyers Argued It Was “Highly Improbable” Lee Kuan Yew Was Tricked
Mrs Lee’s lawyers argued that she had simply forwarded a copy of Mr Lee’s first will which she had obtained from her husband Lee Hsien Yang.
Former Attorney-General Walter Woon, who is one of Suet Fern’s lawyers, asked for all the charges to be dropped, contending that Mr Lee knew what he was doing.
“(Even if there’s a) technical breach … it still goes back to the question, in that case, is there any meaningful sanction? MM (Mr Lee) was himself a lawyer. He was a brilliant lawyer. A will is not a complex document. He read it, he understood it.
“It’s quite clear MM knew what he was doing,” he said, adding that it was “improbable in the extreme” that Mr Lee was tricked by Suet Fern and her husband.
“He read the will, he signed the will, initialled on every page, called for it the following day, told his personal assistant to send it to (Ms Kwa) and tell her it’s the agreement among the siblings,” he said.
This, however, was not how the disciplinary tribunal saw it.
The Law Society Wanted to Disbar Her
In February this year, a disciplinary tribunal found Mrs Lee guilty of grossly improper professional conduct in her handling of her late father-in-law’s will.
The court held a virtual hearing in August, where the Law Society sought to disbar the 62-year-old.
This means that she would have been expelled from the Bar, and her right to practise law would have been revoked.
She Was Found Guilty of Misconduct and Suspended For 15 Months
In the end, a Court of Three Judges found Mrs Lee guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and solicitor.
“She had blindly followed the directions of her husband, a significant beneficiary under the very will whose execution she helped to rush through,”, the written judgement said.
While they didn’t disbar her, the court suspended the senior lawyer from practice for 15 months.
She Was Found to Have Lied Under Oath During Her Testimony
In addition to her misconduct in her handling of Lee Kuan Yew’s will, the court made several other key findings.
For one, they found that Mrs Lee lied in her testimony under oath to a disciplinary tribunal.
According to CNA, she had given “two inconsistent explanations” regarding her reasons for sending the email to Mr Lee.
She first claimed that Mr Lee had instructed her to revert his will to the first.
However, in her second explanation, which she only used during disciplinary proceedings, she said Mr Lee had communicated those instructions to Mr Lee Hsien Yang instead, who then asked Mrs Lee to make the necessary arrangements.
Lee Suet Fern Said “Lee Kuan Yew Knew What He Wanted”
Mrs Lee disagreed with the court’s findings, saying “There was no basis for this case to have even been initiated.”
Her statement was posted on Facebook by her husband Lee Hsien Yang on Friday (20 Nov).
She argued that Mr Lee knew what he was doing when he signed his will.
“This was a private will. Lee Kuan Yew knew what he wanted. He got what he wanted. The Court of Three did not find that he was of unsound mind or that he was not in control.
“He made the decision to revert to his landmark 2011 will following discussions with his lawyer Kwa Kim Li before I was tasked to find a witness.
“Anyone can revoke their own will while they are alive. If this will was not what Lee Kuan Yew wanted, he could easily have made another, as he had done several times before,” she said.
Mrs Lee added that the court found no solicitor-client relationship between her and Mr Lee, nor any dishonesty in her dealings with him.
The Initial Complaint Reportedly Came From the Attorney-General’s Chambers
In her statement, Mrs Lee also said that no complaint had been lodged by Mr Lee, nor any of his beneficiaries, or Ms Kwa, his lawyer.
“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,” she said.
She May Not Be Able to Practise Abroad During Her Suspension
According to The Straits Times, Mrs Lee is registered in Hong Kong as a foreign lawyer.
It’s unclear if her suspension in Singapore will affect her registered right to practise law in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Legal Practitioner’s Ordinance dictates that a solicitor must be in good standing in the country from which they come to qualify to practise law.
Featured Image: YouTube (Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius LLP)