Lawyer struck off rolls for embezzling legal fees

Lawyer struck off rolls for embezzling legal fees
Ms Selena Chiong Chin May, 42, who has a long history of bipolar disorder, changed firms at least 30 times in her 15-year career.

A lawyer with a long history of bipolar disorder was yesterday struck off the rolls for embezzling legal fees from her firm, with the Court of Three Judges advising her to seek medical help for her mental condition.

Counsel for Ms Selena Chiong Chin May, 42, had urged the court only to suspend her, noting that her jail term for criminal breach of trust (CBT) was cut from nine months to two days on appeal due to her condition.

But the court, which has the power to censure, fine, suspend or disbar lawyers for professional misconduct, noted she was still convicted of a dishonest offence.

It was not the first time that Ms Chiong, who was called to the Bar in 1995 after graduating among the top 20 in her class at the National University of Singapore, had appeared before the court. In 2005, she was suspended from practice for a year for not keeping proper accounts and allowing her non-lawyer husband to be a co-signatory of her firm's bank accounts.

In 2013, she was suspended for six months for failing to handle diligently a divorce case she had been hired to do in 2009.

In the current case, the Law Society applied for Ms Chiong to be struck off following her convictions on six counts of CBT.

Ms Chiong was sentenced to nine months' jail by a district court in August last year for embezzling $12,900 from fees paid by clients to the firm for legal services in 2010.

The sentence was slashed to two days' jail and a $12,000 fine in March by the High Court, which said her condition, characterised by mood swings, could have affected her judgment.

Ms Chiong, who has changed firms at least 30 times in her 15-year career, told four clients at her last firm, CH Chan & Co, that they could pay her directly, although she was not allowed to accept legal fees.

She pocketed the money for her own use instead of depositing it in the clients' account of the firm as required by law.

Yesterday, her lawyer, Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng, argued that a suspension would suffice, noting that the High Court had accepted that her medical condition had clouded her judgment.

But Ms Mimi Oh, acting for the Law Society, argued that Ms Chiong's misconduct was unbefitting of a lawyer and warranted her disbarment, as is typical for cases involving dishonesty.

Ms Chiong, who remarried this year and has three children from her first marriage, suffered depression after the birth of her first child in 1996.

She was made bankrupt in 2011 and is jobless.

This article was first published on August 21, 2014.
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