A lawyer has been suspended for five years for borrowing money from a client, even though such loans are forbidden, and for failing to keep proper accounts.
Mr Christopher Yap, a lawyer of 19 years' standing, had borrowed $34,000 from a nephew whom he was legally advising while the latter was in a Jakarta jail.
The lawyer, who is in his 40s, admitted to the offences before two separate disciplinary tribunals last year and appeared before a Court of Three Judges in July.
The court, which comprised Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang, is the highest body for disciplining errant lawyers.
Lawyers are not allowed to borrow monies from clients unless they have been advised by the lawyer concerned to get independent legal advice on the loan.
"A client is vulnerable vis-a-vis his solicitor because the latter enjoys a position of influence over the client and the client may find it difficult to deny a loan," said Justice Chao, on behalf of the court.
Mr Yap had sought the loan from his nephew, Mr Karlson Yap, while the latter was in an Indonesian jail in 2009. The nephew agreed and lent the money through his sister.
This placed "tremendous psychological pressure on (Karlson); he would have found it difficult to say no to (Yap), who was actively working on his release", said Justice Chao.
"We think it incumbent to send a clear message to the profession that such violations are not trivial and will be dealt with accordingly," he added in judgment grounds released earlier this week.
The court noted that Mr Yap had aggravated matters by avoiding contact with his nephew or his sister to avoid payment, and repaid only $700 as of the date of the hearing.
The court also noted that he had failed to keep proper accounting records and comply with the Solicitors' Accounts Rules for more than 18 months from 2011.
Lawyer Pradeep Pillai argued for the Law Society that Mr Yap had been given several extensions to comply with the rules and his failure to do so led to the society having to intervene in his firm's accounts.
The court held that the three charges in relation to the accounts amounted to "grave misconduct" and was not a "one-off lapse".
"Blatant non-compliance (unless the non-compliance is one-off) is a serious form of misconduct, even if the lawyer had not diverted clients' money for his own use," said the court.
Mr Yap, who represented himself, was suspended for two years for the misconduct in relation to the loan and three years for failing to keep and submit proper accounting records in 2012.
The court ordered the suspensions to run consecutively.
It also made clear for the first time that errant lawyers whose offences are so grave that they justify more than a five-year suspension in total will be struck off instead.
This article was first published on Oct 4, 2014.
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