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Lawyer Kwa Kim Li to face disciplinary proceedings over handling of Lee Kuan Yew's wills

SINGAPORE – Ms Kwa Kim Li will be facing a disciplinary tribunal over complaints about her handling of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s wills, in the latest development in the Lee family feud.

The High Court on Wednesday (April 21) ruled that a tribunal should be appointed to formally investigate an additional two complaints filed by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling about Ms Kwa’s conduct.

This came after Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s two younger children, who are the executors of his estate, appealed against the Law Society’s decision to proceed with only one of four complaints they made against Ms Kwa.

The three complaints that the tribunal has been asked to look into are:

– Whether Ms Kwa had failed to follow the instructions of the late Mr Lee to destroy his superseded wills;

– Whether she had breached her duties of confidentiality by sending records of her communications with the late Mr Lee to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; and

– Whether she had given false and misleading information to the executors of the estate.

A fourth complaint, that Ms Kwa had failed to keep proper contemporaneous notes and records of all the advice given and instructions received from their father, was dismissed by the High Court.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee had complained about Ms Kwa’s conduct to the Law Society on Sept 15, 2019. The Law Society then referred the complaints to an inquiry committee, before deciding to proceed with only the complaint regarding the breach of privilege and confidentiality.

In her judgment, Justice Valerie Thean asked the Law Society to initiate disciplinary proceedings over two more of the complaints that have to do with the instructions to destroy Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wills and the false and misleading information.

In allowing the two complaints, she found that the information available was enough to establish a prima facie case of an ethical breach or misconduct of sufficient gravity that warrants formal investigation and consideration by a disciplinary tribunal.

Ms Kwa, who is a cousin of the Lee siblings and a managing partner at Lee and Lee, had helped the late Mr Lee draft six wills between Aug 20, 2011 and Nov 2, 2012. She did not prepare Mr Lee’s earliest will, dated Dec 7, 1995, and his final will, dated Dec 17, 2013.

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After Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death on March 23, 2015, PM Lee and Dr Lee asked Ms Kwa for records and information regarding the various wills that he signed prior to his final will.

Ms Kwa replied to both siblings in an e-mail on June 4, 2015, which she also sent to Mr Lee Hsien Yang, explaining that she thought it was best to respond to all three of the beneficiaries of the late Mr Lee’s estate.

In a second e-mail sent on June 22, 2015 to all three siblings, she attached a draft of the late Mr Lee’s Aug 19, 2011 will, along with a cover e-mail, and e-mail trails from Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern, as well as Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s assistant, Ms Wong Lin Hoe.

Following these e-mails, the lawyers of Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee wrote to Ms Kwa noting that the documents and information relating to the past wills of the late Mr Lee were protected by attorney-client privilege and were confidential.

They asked her not to send any further documents to any party, save for the authorised representatives of the estate.

On Feb 25, 2019, the lawyers asked Ms Kwa for all original files, correspondence, notes and other documents pertaining to Mr Lee’s instructions concerning the six wills. She then gave her complete set of documents to them.

Not destroying wills

It was then that the siblings found a note in the files dated Dec 21, 2011 in which Ms Kwa had recorded that she “tore up” Mr Lee’s first will in front of him.

Based on this, they complained that Ms Kwa had not followed Mr Lee’s instructions to destroy his superseded wills.

Justice Thean found that the Law Society had made a procedural error when it decided not to proceed on this complaint based on two reports by the society’s inquiry committee.

The inquiry committee’s task is to screen complaints to sieve out frivolous ones and ensure that those with sufficient grounds will be subject to disciplinary hearings.

For this complaint, the inquiry committee had first found that there was a prima facie case. On further investigations following questions by the Law Society council, it found that there was not enough documentary evidence to show the late Mr Lee had expressly intended for his prior wills to be physically destroyed or torn up.

In allowing this complaint, Justice Thean said in her judgment: “As the (inquiry committee) had initially concluded that there was a prima facie case on these issues, their statutory role was not to make a finding on this factual issue, but merely to channel it to the proper fact-finding body: the (disciplinary tribunal).”

She added that since the inquiry committee had come to different conclusions in its two reports, the Law Society ought to have concluded that a formal investigation by such a tribunal would be necessary.

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False and misleading

Another complaint by Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee was that Ms Kwa had not informed them of all the discussions between her and the late Mr Lee about their family home at 38 Oxley Road in her June 2015 e-mails.

In particular, they took issue with the fact that Ms Kwa had not mentioned the phone calls and e-mails between her and Mr Lee Kuan Yew about how the to deal with the escalation of value of the Oxley property in the event that it was de-gazetted and redeveloped, which was revealed in e-mails between Ms Kwa and Mr Lee between Nov 30 and Dec 13, 2013.

Ms Kwa’s June 4, 2015 e-mail to PM Lee and his siblings was captioned “Chronology of 6 Wills – my file records with focus on Oxley”, and included a 10-point chronological summary of events from Dec 7, 1995, to Nov 2, 2012, among other details.

The siblings said Ms Kwa had also failed to mention the late Mr Lee’s instructions in an e-mail exchange from Dec 12 to Dec 13, 2013 on the addition of a codicil to change the shares given to each child in the sixth will, and another codicil regarding carpets in the Oxley property.

They contended in their complaint that Ms Kwa must have intentionally left out the information, noting that she had been able to include in her June 22, 2015 e-mail the contemporaneous e-mail trails with Mrs Lee Suet Fern which were from Dec 16, 2013.

The Law Society’s inquiry committee dismissed the complaint on the basis that the June 4, 2015 e-mail was to act as a summary of Mr Lee’s wills based on Ms Kwa’s “file records”. The committee also found that the omissions were not relevant since there was no dispute on the veracity of Mr Lee’s sixth will.

Justice Thean found that taking the June 4, 2015 e-mail as a whole, “its frame and opening did represent its content to be a comprehensive summary of the work done by Ms Kwa on the first six wills and the Oxley property”.

Yet, the judge said, it failed to include information about Mr Lee’s instructions regarding changes to the sixth will, and the discussions regarding the Oxley property in 2013.

“This could have misled the executors into thinking that the June 4, 2015 e-mail contained everything regarding the first six wills and the Oxley property,” she added.

She also said the inquiry committee’s task “would not have been to make the inference as to Ms Kwa’s intention, but to assess whether there was a prima facie case that ought to have been tested by a tribunal of fact to consider whether such an inference should be made”.

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Complaint on record-keeping dismissed

Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee had also complained that Ms Kwa did not keep records of the two telephone conversations relating to discussions on the de-gazetting of the Oxley property.

However, the Law Society found that the content of the first call, on Nov 29, 2013, was captured in depth in the Nov 30, 2013 e-mail and constituted a sufficient record.

The second possible call on Dec 12, 2013 was mentioned in an e-mail Ms Kwa sent to Mr Lee on the same day, saying that she would call him about de-gazetting the Oxley property, “later today”. Ms Kwa did not have file notes or records of any discussions on the matter.

Justice Thean noted that the subject of the conversation in the e-mails were subsequently overtaken by events.

On Dec 17, 2013, Ms Kwa was informed by Mrs Lee Suet Fern and Ms Wong Lin Hoe that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had signed a new will revoking all previous wills.

The final will, which was prepared by Mrs Lee Suet Fern, had been the subject of a separate disciplinary tribunal, which found Mrs Lee guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and a solicitor in her handling of the will. The senior lawyer was suspended for 15 months.

Ms Kwa had not been involved in the preparation of the final will, but was informed about it after it was signed.

“As she was told by Mrs Lee Suet Fern that the new will went back to Mr Lee’s 2011 will, Ms Kwa would have realised that the conversation on the potential escalation of the price of the Oxley property was no longer relevant,” she said in the judgment, noting that these issues pertained to the deletion of the demolition clause, which was in the fifth and sixth wills but not in the first will.

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“Further, there was an instruction on Dec 17, 2013 from Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Ms Wong Lin Hoe to inform Ms Kwa that the contents of the final will reflected ‘the agreement between the siblings’,” the judge noted.

“Her client at this point in time was Mr Lee, and by Dec 17, 2013, there was no further interest of his to pursue at that point in relation to the call, if it had taken place. Therefore, not only is there no prima facie case, the matter is of little gravity.”

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