High Court slashes SMC's claims, calling them exorbitant, unreasonable

The Singapore Medical Council had sent surgeon Susan Lim two bills totalling more than $2 million following disciplinary proceedings stemming from accusations that she had overcharged a patient.

SINGAPORE - The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) and surgeon Susan Lim remain entangled in a dispute, almost five years after it acted against her for overcharging a patient from Brunei.

This time, the disagreement is over how much she should pay the council in costs for the long drawn-out case, which she lost.

The SMC first took action in January 2010, accusing her of overcharging by seeking $24.8 million for treating a member of the Brunei royal family over seven months in 2007. Found guilty in 2012, Dr Lim was fined $10,000, suspended from practice for three years and ordered to pay the SMC's legal costs.

Now the SMC has been told by the High Court that it asked for too much from Dr Lim in two bills totalling over $2 million. These covered costs for a first hearing, which ended with the committee disqualifying itself after 11 days; a second hearing over five days; and the three times Dr Lim took SMC to court along the way.

Dr Lim's husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, contested SMC's legal bills. After separate proceedings before a High Court assistant registrar, both bills were slashed.

Last year, the first bill was cut from $1 million to $370,000; last month, the second was reduced from $1.3 million to $317,000. Assistant Registrar Jacqueline Lee scrutinised the second bill before giving her reasons why the SMC was asking for too much.

The SMC is appealing the latest decision.

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Claim #1 Legal fees: $900,000

The amount the SMC claimed as payment to law firm WongPartnership on behalf of lawyers Alvin Yeo, Melanie Ho and Lim Wei Lee

Cut to $180,000

The judgment: A doctor found guilty in an SMC disciplinary hearing can only be charged for the services of one lawyer - unless the proceedings are so complex they call for another lawyer who must be certified by SMC's disciplinary committee.

This certification was not done in this case.

Assistant Registrar Jacqueline Lee decided what was claimed for both Ms Melanie Ho and Ms Lim Wei Lee should not be allowed, and the $514,000 claimed for Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo's work was too high.

The SMC had originally presented a bill of $1,229,804 for 1,900 hours spent by its lawyers on the case, claiming "out of abundance of caution, the amount stated is a reduced figure of the time spent". The Law Society also has verified that the SMC paid a higher amount to WongPartnership than it is claiming from Dr Lim.

Ms Lee said that SMC's statement meant little since she had no information on how much time had actually been spent, and criticised the council for not detailing what the lawyers had spent their time on.

She also pointed out that "collectively, Mr Yeo, Ms Ho and Ms Lim allegedly spent 718 hours" - much less than the 1,900 hours claimed for.

Ms Lee added that if the 1,900 hours included two replacement lawyers catching up on what had happened before they joined the team, "it would be unreasonable to make the respondent (Dr Lim) bear the costs arising from any such inefficiency in the conduct of the prosecution".

Claim #2 Fees for legal assessor :$235,000

The amount claimed to pay law firm Shook Lin & Bok for the services of legal assessor V. Coomaraswamy during the second disciplinary hearing

Cut to $22,000

The judgment: A legal assessor attends SMC disciplinary hearings only to advise on questions of law, and to alert the committee of any irregularity in the proceedings. He may also help the committee draft its decision.

For the work of the legal assessor in the first hearing, which totalled 65 hours, law firm Wee Swee Teow charged $49,200 for Senior Counsel Giam Chin Toon's time. This was reduced to $45,000. In the second hearing, Shook Lin & Bok charged $235,000 for then Senior Counsel V. Coomaraswamy's 224 hours of work done between August 2010 and July 2012. Ms Lee noted the start date for the bill was before the second disciplinary committee had even been formed.

Questioning the number of hours of work by Mr Coomaraswamy, she said: "Even rounding up all the hours taken for the nine pre-inquiry conferences and the five inquiry hearings, they should add up to no more than 32 hours. This only leaves one to wonder how the second legal assessor spent the balance of approximately 180 hours."

Ms Lee made it clear she believed the lawyer, who is now a Supreme Court judge, had actually spent 224 hours on the case, possibly on internal meetings. But without details, she said, she was unable to decide if any of them could be considered part of required work. She said it was not fair for Dr Lim to be charged $1,050 per hour for Mr Coomaraswamy's work, when the previous legal assessor had charged $570 per hour - as it was not her fault a second committee had to be set up to hear her case.

Claim #3 Fees for expert witness: $42,000

The claim for expert witness Dr Hong Ga Sze, a general surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre

Cut to $5,000

The judgment: Dr Hong Ga Sze, a general surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, provided a written opinion and gave testimony for one day, during the first disciplinary committee's hearing.

But his $14,000 bill for a day's expert evidence was very high, particularly since it "did not involve complex, technical or medical expertise", said Ms Lim.

The testimony needed from Dr Hong and another expert witness, consultant medical oncologist Dr Tan Yew Oo, was on what was considered reasonable for a doctor to charge.

Dr Tan, the more senior medical expert, had charged $700 for each hour he was on the stand, and $200 every hour for time spent waiting.

His bill of $12,145 was reduced to $9,000.

"Dr Hong's fees of $6,000 just for 'standing by' - waiting to take the witness stand - are also exorbitant," said Ms Lee.

She also criticised his separate $6,000 bill for preparing the trial report, for which Dr Tan had charged only $1,000.

She took issue as well with another $14,000 charged by Dr Hong, an SMC council member since last year, for his trial preparation which stretched from March 2009 to February 2010.

The period started "even before the notice of inquiry was issued" to Dr Lim, she noted.

Claim #4 High court appeal: $150,000

The Council's claim for the High Court appeal against the decision of the second disciplinary committee decision

Cut to $70,000

The judgment: The council had billed Dr Lim $150,000 for the work it had to do on the case, including "work done to address the respondent's irrelevant arguments".

But Ms Lee cut this by more than half.

Separately, the SMC also charged $6 for every ring binder used to collate documents.

In previous SMC hearings, binders were charged at either $2.50 or $3.

As a result, the roughly $4,000 the SMC had billed for close to 700 ring binders was also slashed to less than half.


This article was first published on October 26, 2014.
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