Lawyers consider move for new fee option

SINGAPORE - The Law Society is studying whether lawyers here should be allowed to be paid a percentage of proceeds from successful cases.

Vice-president Thio Shen Yi is heading a sub-committee that will make recommendations on contingency fees in the wake of calls for a review of the ban on the payments.

Traditionally, such payments have been opposed as they are said to encourage litigation, generate more disputes and inflate damages claims.

"We intend to produce a report which I hope will form the basis for informed discussions within the profession and will canvass views from all stakeholders," said Mr Thio, who is a Senior Counsel.

In January, former justices' law clerks Seow Tzi Yang and Debra Lam argued that contingency fees make "economic sense", pointing out that middle-class citizens have been priced out of access to the law because they are ineligible for legal aid and deterred by high legal costs.

Last year, the Court of Three Judges - the apex court for disciplining lawyers - made clear that any move to allow contingency fee arrangements was up to Parliament and not the courts.

Mr Thio's pitch, contained in the current issue of the Law Society's Law Gazette, stressed the need to keep up with the global reality of growing acceptance of flexible fee arrangements, adding that lawyers must remain competitive in an increasingly connected world.

"Our domestic practices are increasingly intersecting with international practices," he wrote. "There is greater competition for work."

Mr Thio cited "anecdotal evidence" of local firms losing potential arbitration briefs "because some international firms have the ability to enter into flexible fee arrangements and we don't. Allowing flexible fee arrangements helps to level the playing field".

He added that there is growing client resistance to fixed, time-based fees and rising demand for lawyers to be flexible in their fee arrangements.

England, Australia and Canada - countries with common law systems like Singapore's - have legalised flexible fee arrangements in some form.

"An old friend of mine, a tax partner in one of the largest Canadian firms, remarked, 'We introduced contingency fees and the sky didn't fall,'" said Mr Thio, who stressed that such flexible arrangements do not mean a "free-for-all" as long as there is "market oversight and regulation".

Acknowledging that the subject draws "polarised reactions, often visceral, sometimes violent but always vigorous", he said there are valid competing arguments and concerns.

"Flexible fee arrangements are an increasing reality in the world of professional services," he concluded. "We cannot ignore the imperative to at least apply our minds to this issue."

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