Lee Kuan Yew’s lawyer fined $13,000 for breaching confidentiality, misleading executors
Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 12 May 2023
Author: Tham Yuen-C
The fine comes after Ms Kwa Kim Li was found guilty of misconduct unbefitting of an advocate and solicitor.
The lawyer of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has been ordered to pay a penalty of $13,000 by a disciplinary tribunal. This is after she was found guilty of misconduct unbefitting of an advocate and solicitor in relation to several e-mails she sent to his children about his wills.
Ms Kwa Kim Li was referred to the tribunal after the late Mr Lee’s two younger children, executors of his estate, complained that the lawyer had breached their father’s confidentiality, and also misled them.
Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang had taken issue with two separate e-mails that Ms Kwa sent to them and their older brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on June 4, 2015, and June 22, 2015. The e-mails contained information on the late Mr Lee’s deliberations and instructions over his wills.
The findings of the two-man tribunal, consisting of Mr N. Sreenivasan and Mr Alvin Tan Kheng Ann, are the latest development in the Lee family feud over the late Mr Lee’s home at 38 Oxley Road.
In a report released on May 5, the tribunal said Ms Kwa was guilty of misconduct under section 83(2)(h) of the Legal Profession Act.
The senior lawyer, a first cousin of the Lee siblings and a managing partner at Lee & Lee, had helped the late Mr Lee draft six wills between Aug 20, 2011, and Nov 2, 2012.
His seventh and final will, dated Dec 17, 2013, was prepared by Mrs Lee Suet Fern, Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s wife. It had bequeathed equal shares of the late Mr Lee’s estate to his children, and also included a demolition clause for his 38 Oxley Road home.
After the late Mr Lee’s death on March 23, 2015, the clause became a source of contention between Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and PM Lee. The two younger children argued for it to be enforced, while their older brother said the decision should be made by the Government. PM Lee has recused himself from all government decisions on the matter.
Amid the quarrel, Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who are the executors of their father’s estate, brought four complaints against Ms Kwa in 2019. The Law Society referred one of the complaints to the disciplinary tribunal, but was asked by the court to refer another one of the complaints after Mr Lee appealed against the society’s decision.
The disciplinary tribunal eventually heard two of the complaints, which arose from two e-mails that Ms Kwa sent on June 4, 2015, and June 22, 2015, to the three siblings.
She had sent them in response to requests from Dr Lee and PM Lee for records of the late Mr Lee’s instructions regarding 38 Oxley Road.
Breach of confidentiality
The June 4, 2015, e-mail contained the late Mr Lee’s six earlier wills, e-mail correspondence between him and Ms Kwa from Aug 17, 2011, to Nov 2, 2012, and also a summary of the background as to why the late Mr Lee signed six wills over 15 months.
In their complaint, Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang said the information contained in the e-mail was confidential to the late Mr Lee and his estate after his death, and should not have been sent to PM Lee.
Ms Kwa had said in the body of the e-mail that she thought it was best that the e-mail was addressed to all three of them as they are the only beneficiaries of the estate.
She had also revealed that by her estimate, she had prepared 15 drafts of the late Mr Lee’s wills for his review from August 2011 to November 2012. She added that she was telling them this and other details as she wanted them to know that “your father spent much time and thought on his six wills”.
She added that much of her discussions with the late Mr Lee had revolved around where Dr Lee would live, the division of the estate and “how to give the children the least problem” over the 38 Oxley Road property after his death.
The tribunal found that Ms Kwa had failed to scrupulously safeguard the late Mr Lee’s confidentiality in sending the e-mail to all three children.
Before the tribunal hearing, Ms Kwa had admitted in an agreed statement of facts that she did not obtain the executors’ consent to send the e-mail to PM Lee, and that this amounted to misconduct unbefitting of a solicitor.
But while the tribunal found her guilty of misconduct, it said her culpability and the harm caused by the breach was not substantial, noting that there was no evidence suggesting she was acting from any improper motives.
The tribunal accepted that Ms Kwa had close personal relations with the late Mr Lee and sent the e-mail “under the notion that she ought to respond to queries from beneficiaries, who also happened to be her first cousins, with whom she grew up”.
Ms Kwa said she sent the e-mail to all three children out of a deep sense of loyalty to the late Mr Lee. He had previously indicated that he would inform his children of his intentions and the reasons behind his bequests. He would have wanted her to share the information with all three of them, she added.
But pointing to how Dr Lee had previously voiced unhappiness over a change in her larger share of the estate to an equal share, the tribunal said it should have been clear to Ms Kwa that she was dealing with sensitive family issues.
“In a situation such as the present case, it is imperative that solicitors act strictly within their professional boundaries and exercise care and caution,” said the tribunal.
Misleading Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang
Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang had also taken issue with Ms Kwa for not disclosing discussions she had with their father in November and December 2013.
After the sixth will was prepared, the late Mr Lee had spoken of changes he wanted with his will over several e-mails and discussions between Nov 30, 2013, and Dec 13, 2013.
In an e-mail on Nov 30, he raised concerns he had over the 38 Oxley Road property being “de-gazetted”, and told Ms Kwa he wanted to make sure any increase in value should be shared equally by all three children, and not just be retained by PM Lee, who was bequeathed 38 Oxley Road.
After that, he also discussed with Ms Kwa his intention to give all three children equal shares of his estate, as opposed to giving Dr Lee a larger share in his existing will.
On Dec 12, 2013, Ms Kwa sent him an e-mail to say she would prepare a codicil, or supplement to the will, to include these changes, and also said she had “some thoughts” on 38 Oxley Road and would call him later that day.
On Dec 13, 2013, the late Mr Lee sent another e-mail to Ms Kwa to ask for a further amendment to his will to bequeath a silk and a wool carpet to Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
Yet, in her June 4, 2015, and June 22, 2015, e-mails, Ms Kwa did not mention these communications, said Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang. They added that Ms Kwa had misled them into believing that their father never asked her to change his will.
The disciplinary tribunal said Ms Kwa had not misled the two siblings in the June 4, 2015, e-mail, which was sent in response to queries by Dr Lee and PM Lee, as nothing in the queries made it necessary for her to refer to the November and December 2013 discussions with the late Mr Lee.
But the tribunal agreed with Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang that Ms Kwa had misled them in the June 22, 2015, e-mail.
The tribunal noted that it was clear that the subject matter being addressed in that e-mail was about the late Mr Lee’s seventh and final will and the background to that will. Given this, Ms Kwa should have disclosed her discussions with the late Mr Lee from November to December 2013.
Instead, she had stated in the e-mail that after the late Mr Lee signed the sixth will, “he did not instruct me to change his will”, which is false, they said.
To this, Ms Kwa explained that her statement was true as she was not involved in the preparation of the seventh will. She said she had been informed about this will through an e-mail by Mrs Lee Suet Fern and the late Mr Lee’s assistant.
Given this, she added, it would be inappropriate and irresponsible for her to guess or speculate about the late Mr Lee’s reasons for the treatment of 38 Oxley Road in that will.
Disagreeing with this defence, the tribunal said that the nub of the queries by the late Mr Lee’s children was to find out how the seventh will came about, and not the formalities of its execution.
Also, while the instructions by the late Mr Lee to change his sixth will were never finalised, it is clear Ms Kwa had received instructions relating to the changes. This was eventually reflected in the seventh will, the tribunal added.
The tribunal found that Ms Kwa’s omission to disclose the November and December 2013 e-mails was misleading.
“Having chosen to respond to the queries, it was incumbent upon (Ms Kwa) to be complete and accurate in her response. We find that had (Ms Kwa) exercised due care and diligence, she ought to have disclosed the November/December 2013 communications...and ought not have stated that she had received no instructions to change the (late Mr Lee’s) will,” the tribunal said.
But it added that there was no direct evidence that she had knowingly or deliberately misled the late Mr Lee’s three children in her June 22, 2015, e-mail, and also no evidence or suggestion that she had done so for personal or any partisan purposes.
Besides a fine of $13,000 for misconduct unbefitting of an advocate and solicitor under section 83(2)(h) of the Legal Profession Act, Ms Kwa was also ordered to pay costs of $5,000 to the Law Society and $12,000 to Mr Lee Hsien Yang.
The late Mr Lee’s seventh will had also been the subject of a separate disciplinary tribunal in 2019, which found Mrs Lee Suet Fern guilty of misconduct unbefitting an advocate and a solicitor and suspended her for 15 months.
Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.