Top lawyer takes stand over $5m late relative gave to trio

In a change of courtroom roles, Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam took the witness stand yesterday to testify how he uncovered circumstances that led him to suspect a distant relative had been exploited into giving $5 million to her maid, a construction worker and an engineer.

The relative is the late Dr Freda Paul, a retired doctor who died in August last year at the age of 87.

In his capacity as one of two executors of her estate, Mr Jeyaretnam is suing the trio and two others to get back the money she had given away in 2010.

He argued she was mentally incapable of understanding the effect of the gifts and had acted under undue influence.

Mr Jeyaretnam, a son of late politician J. B. Jeyaretnam, is not a beneficiary of her estate.

His grandfather and Dr Paul's father were cousins.

"The reason we brought the suit is (that) there is a whole plethora of suspicious circumstances," he said when cross-examined.

Among other things, he noted that Dr Paul's written instructions to a lawyer in 2009 were uncharacteristically peppered with spelling errors.

He also found it "deeply suspicious" that monthly payments of $9,000 she got from a reverse mortgage in 2007 were cashed out immediately.

Dr Paul, who was a paediatrician at Singapore General Hospital, never married and her sole asset was a house in Haig Road, which was sold in 2009 for $15.4 million.

In 2001, she befriended Mr Kulandaivelu Malayaperumal, a worker at a nearby construction site, and his supervisor, engineer Gopal Subramaniam.

Construction worker Kulandaivelu Malayaperumal was among those being sued by Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, who is one of two executors of Dr Freda Paul's estate. Dr Paul, a retired doctor died in August 2016 at the age of 87.Photo: Zaobao
Engineer Gopal Subramaniam was among those being sued by Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, who is one of two executors of Dr Freda Paul's estate. Dr Paul, a retired doctor died in August 2016 at the age of 87.Photo: The Straits Times

Both were from India.

She was then living with her mentally disabled sister and Sri Lankan maid Arulampalam Kanthimathy.

In 2007, she willed the bulk of her wealth to be used to set up a bursary fund for needy female medical students at the National University of Singapore.

Four cousins in Malaysia were the other beneficiaries.

By May 2009, Mr Malayaperumal would occasionally stay over at her home.

In September 2009, after her sister died, Dr Paul told her lawyer to prepare a power of attorney, authorising Mr Subramaniam to sell the house.

He deposited $10 million into her bank account, gave $1 million to Mr Malayaperumal, $1 million to Ms Kanthimathy, and $912,000 to himself.

He also used $2.4 million to buy a smaller house in Ceylon Road for Dr Paul.

Six months later, Mr Malayaperumal and Ms Kanthimathy each received another $1 million.

Property agent Parvathi Somu, who handled the deals, received $500,000.

The maid was added as a joint holder of Dr Paul's bank account.

Around the same time, Dr Paul made a will, this time leaving most of her assets to Mr Malayaperumal and Ms Kanthimathy.

There was no bequest for the bursary fund.

In his testimony, Mr Jeyaretnam said that in 2012, another relative - Dr Ruhunadevi Joshua - told him she and her husband had visited Dr Paul, but the maid did not let them in.

Mr Jeyaretnam said that when he visited Dr Paul, she could not recognise him.

In 2013, he and Dr Joshua applied and were appointed to be deputies under the Mental Capacity Act to manage Dr Paul's affairs.

On finding out, among other things, that Dr Paul made the 2010 will even though she was medically unfit, he suspected she had been exploited, he said.

He and Dr Joshua went to court to reinstate the terms in the 2007 will.

They also sued five people, including the lawyer who prepared the power of attorney, to recover the $5.4 million.

A default judgment was obtained against the maid after she failed to respond to the suit.

The claims against the property agent and lawyer were settled out of court.

Mr Malayaperumal and Mr Subramaniam argued that Dr Paul was of sound mind at the time.

Mr Malayaperumal contends she had willingly given him the money.

Mr Subramaniam denied exercising any undue influence, saying his role was limited to carrying out his duties as her legal representative.

This article was first published on January 13, 2017.
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