Susan Lim case back to the courts again next week

Dr Susan Lim had billed a Bruneian royal client $26 million. In a 2013 judgment, the court said there must be an ''ethical obligation on the part of a professional, over and above contractual and market forces, to charge his or her client only a fair and reasonable fee for services rendered''. Photo: The Business Times

The drama following surgeon Susan Lim's overcharging of a Bruneian royal patient continues in the courts next week.

There will be two hearings before Justice Woo Bih Li.

The first, to be held next Monday in chambers, is about a $235,000 fee for the legal assessor in the Singapore Medical Council's (SMC) disciplinary hearing in 2012 that resulted in Dr Lim's conviction.

The second, to be held next Thursday, is about a request to the Law Society to set up an inquiry committee to hear claims of professional misconduct against SMC's counsel for overcharging in its bill, which came to about $900,000.

Dr Lim's husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, had filed a complaint last year against SMC lawyers WongPartnership, accusing them of professional misconduct for their high fees in the disciplinary hearings and court proceedings.

But the Law Society's Review Committee dismissed the charges.

In 2010, Dr Lim had faced an SMC disciplinary hearing for overcharging a royal patient from Brunei. The hearing ended without a decision but a second one in 2012 found her guilty.

There have been several High Court appeals since then, including Dr Lim's appeal to stop the second SMC hearing and, later, against the guilty verdict, and SMC's successful appeal against the low costs it was awarded.

Now, Mr Sharma is seeking permission from Justice Woo to appeal against two of his earlier judgments - in awarding the SMC higher costs; and in upholding the Review Committee's dismissal of Mr Sharma's complaint.

The first appeal refers to a judgment in May this year when Justice Woo raised the amount Dr Lim has to pay the SMC by $465,000. This brings the total she has to pay to about $825,000.

Mr Sharma is contesting one particular bill - the $235,000 for 224 hours of work at $1,050 an hour by legal assessor Vinodh Coomaraswamy, who is now a Supreme Court judge. This bill had been cut to $22,000 by High Court Assistant Registrar Jacqueline Lee, who said the work done "should not add up to more than 32 hours".

But Justice Woo had reinstated the original amount of $235,000.

In the second case, Mr Sharma claims that the SMC's lawyers, WongPartnership, had grossly overcharged for their work - and should be subject to a Law Society disciplinary hearing.

Mr Sharma argues in his submission: "The fact that a solicitor can point to a fee agreement with the client does not mean charges can be put forward without any reference to how excessive they are in absolute terms.

"The whole thrust of the judgment in Lim Mei Lee Susan v Singapore Medical Council was that client agreement is no answer to what is a free-standing ethical obligation owed in the public interest."

Dr Lim had billed her Bruneian royal client $26 million for professional care and other expenses such as airlifting her back to Brunei. No payment has yet been made.

In their 2013 judgment upholding the SMC's verdict, the three-judge court said there must be an "ethical obligation on the part of a professional, over and above contractual and market forces, to charge his or her client only a fair and reasonable fee for services rendered".

But the Attorney-General's submission points out that the claims for legal costs were made by the SMC and not by the lawyers, adding that in "the absence of other impropriety (example, dishonesty)", there is nothing unprofessional in a lawyer making "a grossly excessive claim for his client".

AGC, Law Society differ on two points

Both the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) and the Law Society dispute the grounds for a judicial review asked for by Mr Deepak Sharma, Dr Susan Lim's husband.

There are two points, however, on which they disagree and these have been highlighted in Mr Sharma's reply to their written submissions.

The first is a disagreement on whether the decision by the Law Society's Review Committee is subject to judicial review.

The AGC said yes, and the Law Society said no.

The other point of disagreement is whether Mr Sharma can make such a complaint as he is not involved in the case.

This time, the Law Society said he can, but the AGC said he lacks sufficient interest or standing in the matter.

This article was first published on July 16, 2015.
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