Two lawyers were recently dealt with separately by disciplinary tribunals. One was fined $20,000 for poor case management and another reprimanded for "talking behind the back" of a lawyer.
Disciplinary tribunals are appointed by the Chief Justice to probe lawyer misconduct. They can either deal with them or refer them to the Court of Three Judges to face heavier penalties if the case is considered serious, or dismiss it if it is found unjustified.
In the first case, lawyer S. Udeh Kumar, who has been practising since 1988, admitted to missing pre-trial court conferences on four occasions and failing to meet court deadlines in relation to filing documents on three counts.
The events took place between February 2012 and April last year, in relation to a divorce case where Mr Kumar represented the defendant husband, who had no complaints about him; the complainant was his client's wife.
His lawyer S. Magintharan argued that Mr Kumar ran into problems because of a heavy caseload, saying none of his clients had been unhappy with his work.
He added that Mr Kumar had compensated the complainant for the delays caused and had taken remedial steps in managing work, including hiring legal assistants.
Senior Counsel Andre Maniam, in prosecuting for the Law Society, pointed out that Mr Kumar had previously been disciplined for a similar case in 2010 to 2012.
He was slapped with a $10,000 penalty then.
The tribunal, comprising retired High Court judge Kan Ting Chiu and lawyer Pradeep Pillai, noted Mr Kumar had a history of poor case management, which was "so troubling that the Chief District Judge of the then Subordinate Courts had counselled him about his repeated failures to and lateness in attending court and urged him to change his ways".
The tribunal, in decision grounds released yesterday, said a heavy caseload cannot be an excuse or mitigation for repeating bad case management. "While he may not have been deliberately disdainful or disrespectful towards the court or complainant, he must have been aware that his conduct was disrespectful towards the court and the complainant, and disruptive to the efficient progress of the proceedings."
The saving grace this time around was that Mr Kumar is no longer a one-man operation and now has legal assistants and a partner at his firm. This will help him share the caseload and prevent a repeat of his misconduct, said the tribunal, which ordered him to pay $3,000 in costs, in addition to the $20,000 penalty.
Separately, lawyer A.P. Thirumurthy, who had been in practice since 2000, was reprimanded by a tribunal presided by Mr Kan and tribunal member Harish Kumar.
Mr Thirumurthy admitted to talking to an opposing party without the consent of the latter's lawyer. The talk involved the delay in the proposed sale of a Tampines HDB flat.
Mr Thirumurthy, defended by Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim, said he did not initiate the conversation, and had not gained any advantage or acted in bad faith.
The tribunal made it clear that "it is discourteous for a lawyer to communicate with the client of another lawyer behind his back".
Although no advantage was gained by Mr Thirumurthy in this case, the rule applies even if there was no intention to gain advantage, "as there is the risk that advantage is obtained even though it is not sought", it added.
This article was first published on Dec 30, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.