Former lawyer's jail term slashed on appeal

A FORMER lawyer who embezzled legal fees of $12,900 from her firm on Friday had her jail term slashed from nine months to two days on appeal to the High Court.

Justice Tay Yong Kwang, in reducing the jail term of Selena Chiong Chin May, 42, said her situation was "exceptional".

Pointing to her long history of bipolar disorder - a mental condition characterised by mood swings - the judge said this could have affected her judgment, so she should not be judged on the same level as an "average clear-thinking lawyer".

Coupled with the assurance by her lawyer, Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng, that she would return $3,870 to her former boss, the judge cut her sentence to two days' jail and a $12,000 fine.

He also slashed her fine - from $6,000 to $1,500 - for an unrelated charge of acting as a lawyer after her practising certificate expired.

Justice Tay noted that this was not a case of a lawyer misappropriating clients' money, but fees paid by clients to the firm, of which she would have eventually received a 70 per cent share.

However, Chiong was not entitled to use the money at the time; neither was she entitled to take the 30 per cent due to Mr Allan Chan, the boss of the firm C H Chan, he said.

Chiong, who has changed law firms at least 30 times in her 15-year career, joined her last firm in April 2010. She and Mr Chan agreed on a 70-30 fee-sharing arrangement for the cases she handled.

Although she was not allowed to accept legal fees, she lied to four clients that they could pay her. She pocketed the money for personal use instead of depositing it in the clients' account of the firm as required by law.

Mr Chan found out after clients complained that she had not done the work they hired her for. He fired her in June 2010.

After a seven-day trial, she was convicted in May last year, on six counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of practising without a certificate.

She appealed against the conviction and sentence.

Mr Tan argued on Friday for Chiong, who remarried this year and has three children from her first marriage, to be granted probation. He argued that her disorder had clouded her perception of the circumstances.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Bhajanvir Singh argued that she could not claim the offences were exacerbated by her disorder when she had previously submitted medical reports stating that she is mentally fit to practice law.

Chiong, who was made bankrupt in 2011, is now jobless.

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