David and Goliath

The saga began in 2012 with a road accident in which Rana Masud, a migrant worker from Bangladesh, was hurt. Ten years later, this relatively simple issue had become one in which Rana had to take the Law Society to court. And won.

The Law Society is the professional association of lawyers in Singapore.

How this extraordinary case evolved the way it did is recounted in detail in the attachment written by Kris Tay, a TWC2 volunteer who assisted with this case (download link at the end of this article).

TWC2 didn’t know Rana in 2012. He only came to us in August 2018, six years after the accident. What we learned from him was that after the accident he first engaged law firm Charan & Co. to pursue an injury claim (Suit 2553) but a little later, they were replaced by another law firm Joseph Chen & Co. However, as at August 2018, Rana had no information what had happened to his case – which was why he sought our help.

TWC2 got to work. We learned from the insurance company that his personal injury lawsuit had been automatically discontinued as there had been no activity in the proceedings for more than a year. It would later emerge that the precise date Suit 2553 had been discontinued was 23 October 2016, a fact which no one from Joseph Chen & Co. had told Rana about. Seeing the discontinuance as being the fault of Joseph Chen & Co.’s sole proprietor and practitioner, Joseph Chen, Rana filed a complaint with the Law Society against the latter.

The Law Society constituted an Inquiry Committee to look into the matter. The upshot of that was that several charges against Joseph Chen were recommended. The three recommended charges related to Joseph Chen’s supervision of his staff; his diligence and competence in providing services to Rana; and his duty to provide timely advice to Rana to prevent the discontinuance of the injury suit.

The recommendations ought normally to lead to formal charges to be heard before a Disciplinary Tribunal.

Disciplinary Tribunals are appointed by the Chief Justice on application by the Council of the Law Society. The Society appoints a solicitor to prosecute the matter before the Tribunal. Rana himself flew back from Bangladesh in December 2019 to attend the Tribunal hearing as a witness.

And then, silence.

Twenty-two months later, on 4 October 2021, a news story appeared in the Straits Times. Headlined “Tribunal declines to make finding in Law Society case against lawyer involving ‘watered-down’ charge”, the newspaper reported that there was a plea bargain between Joseph Chen and the Law Society. However,

The tribunal found it “troubling” that despite the documentary evidence pointing to the need for more serious charges to be probed by the tribunal, the parties entered into a plea bargaining pact that led to the removal of the more serious charges and the watering down of the remaining charge.

Further down the news story, Straits Times reported the Tribunal’s observation that the sole amended charge did not reflect the “gravamen” or seriousness of the complaint.

“The present case is yet another example as to why members of the public might have concerns as to whether the legal profession should be entitled to regulate (itself),” added the tribunal.

Consequently, the Tribunal made no determination on the “watered down” charge, and further opined that the Law Society’s decision to proceed only with that one single charge should be judicially reviewed.

According to the newspaper,

A spokesman for the Law Society last week confirmed that it is proceeding with a judicial review application in relation to the tribunal’s report.

Since the newspaper story was dated 4 October 2021, the reporter would have gotten the confirmation from the Law Society in September 2021.

A month later, TWC2 found out that, contrary to what was reported in the Straits Times, the Law Society did not intend to apply for judicial review. What it instead proposed to do was to write to the Chief Justice to ask that the Tribunal be directed to hear and determine the single remaining “watered down” charge – in laymen’s terms, to compel the Disciplinary Tribunal to proceed on the basis of the plea bargain.

More exchanges followed between the Law Society and a pro bono lawyer (Jamal Siddique of Shook Lin & Bok) whom TWC2 found for Rana Masud, following which Rana filed summons in the High Court (29 March 2022) asking the court to quash the plea bargain and to order the Law Society to proceed with the original three charges against Joseph Chen.

On 25 August 2022, Rana Masud was granted, in substance, all that he asked for. The High Court set aside the Law Society’s decision to withdraw the three original charges and proceed only with the “watered down” charge. Moreover, the Law Society was also ordered to apply to the Chief Justice, by 8 September 2022, for a new Disciplinary Tribunal to be appointed to hear and investigate the original charges.

Readers may notice that the deadline of 8 September 2022 has passed, and yet we have not been informed whether the Law Society has applied to the Chief Justice for a new Disciplinary Tribunal to be appointed, or whether we are faced with more foot-dragging.

The full account (to date) can be downloaded by clicking the icon at right.