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SMC's lawyers accused of overcharging

Surgeon Susan Lim's husband brings new action before courts

[SINGAPORE] Last year, surgeon Susan Lim lost her battle against the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) over its assertions that she had overcharged her wealthy Bruneian patient. Now, her husband - who is funding her case - is accusing the SMC's lawyers of overcharging.

The claims have been made in a new action brought by Deepak Sharma - recently retired Citi Private Bank global chairman - before the High Court. He is applying for a judicial review of a decision made by a review committee (RC) looking into a complaint he made to the Law Society of Singapore (Lawsoc) earlier this year.

He is asking the court to quash this decision and for a new RC to be formed to look into his complaint.

Mr Sharma's complaint to Lawsoc, submitted as part of his application for a judicial review, are over the fees that SMC's lawyers - Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo and Melanie Ho of WongPartnership (WongP) - are seeking to recover for the work they did for the SMC in its case against Dr Lim.

Having lost that case, Dr Lim was ordered to pay the SMC's costs. Mr Sharma is funding his wife's legal costs.

He claims that, in one of their bills, WongP was charging what amounted to $77,102 for each day they were in court. In another, it was $46,729 for each day in court. And, for the third bill, he says the lawyers' charges amount to $100,000 per hour of hearing.

The total bill from the WongPartnership lawyers - which amounted to $1.007 million - was brought before a taxation hearing, after Dr Lim filed notices of dispute for all the bills.

A taxation hearing takes place when the bill of costs submitted by the winning party of a lawsuit is disputed. The bill can be considered by a taxing registrar, and each item disputed in the bill will be determined by the taxing registrar after hearing objections and arguments by each party.

The assistant registrar at this taxation hearing reduced WongP's total bill of costs to $340,000 - about a third of the original.

Mr Yeo and Ms Ho applied to review this decision. High Court Judge Justice Woo Bih Li, who reviewed the matter, eventually allowed a total sum of $370,000 for the bill of costs.

"I believe that the actions by the lawyers in grossly overcharging my wife by $637,009 (the difference between the original bill amount of $1.007 million and the $370,000 allowed by Justice Woo) are dishonourable and constitute grossly improper conduct," Mr Sharma alleged in his complaint.

In response to this complaint to the Law Society, a review committee (RC) "consisting of a senior practitioner from the Singapore Bar as well as a Deputy Senior State Counsel from the Singapore Legal Service/ Public Service Commission" was appointed to review the complaint.

The RC dismissed Mr Sharma's complaints against Mr Yeo, as lacking in substance. It based its decision on WongP's assertion that Mr Yeo was not involved in the preparation of the bills, and that there was therefore no misconduct on his part.

As for Mr Sharma's complaints against Ms Ho, the RC dismissed the portion which alleged that the sums claimed were exorbitant, but it referred another portion of his complaint - that the sums claimed from Dr Lim were in excess of what was actually billed to the SMC - back to an inquiry committee for further inquiry.

Mr Sharma is now applying for a judicial review of this decision by the RC. This is said to be the first time someone has applied for a judicial review of a review committee's decision.

Mr Sharma is also applying for the admission of a prominent Queen's Counsel, Michael Fordham, to represent him in this action, after having been turned down by all of the over 20 Singapore Senior Counsel he approached, he said.

When asked for comment, Lawsoc told The Business Times: "As the matter is now before the court, it will not be appropriate for the Society to comment on the matter. We will be appointing counsel to represent the Society to articulate our position."

WongP also declined to comment, when approached, given that this is a matter now before the court.