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Over-charging over over-charging

When I read the news reports last week about super-high fees asked for by lawyers for the Singapore Medical Council for their work on the Susan Lim case, I wondered if I was really reading something new. It all seemed so familiar. So I did a little digging and realised the reason for the sense of déjà vu. This case of lawyer-overcharging-the-overcharging doctor had been played out before – between the same protagonists.

Here’s the background:

Last year, the SMC lawyers, Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo of Wong Partnership, had put up a legal bill of $1,007,009.30. This was for work during a High Court case; Dr Lim had tried and failed to stop the SMC from convening a second disciplinary committee against her.

Dr Lim’s side disputed the bill. It was sent for taxation, that is, for the courts to review. This was slashed to $340,000.

The SMC appealed to get the figure up to $720,000 but the court only revised it up by $30,000 – to $370,000.

All this came to light in MSM in July this year, when her husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, who is funding her case, decided to go public on his complaint of overcharging. He had gone to the Law Society alleging professional misconduct on the part of Mr Yeo and was upset that the LawSoc’s Review Committee had dismissed his complaint as having “no substance’’.

Now he’s gone to the courts to get it to review the decision – as well as to bring in a Queen’s Counsel to fight his case. Why? Because at least 20 Senior Counsel here have turned him down, mainly citing their personal links with Mr Yeo.

Fast forward to the latest twist:  

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A few months ago, the same SMC lawyers submitted a bill for $1.33 million, for work on two disciplinary committees convened to hear the case against Dr Lim.

Dr Lim’s side again disputed the bill. This was slashed to $317,000.

No wonder I get the sense that I was reading the same thing. Almost the same figures!

You wonder why the lawyers and the SMC hadn’t learnt from the earlier lesson. Unlike the latest case reported last week, there is no news report on what the first registrar said about slashing the first set of fees. But it appears that somewhat similar reasons were put up by the lawyers to justify their fees – number of lawyers involved and the hours spent, including getting “new’’ lawyers up to speed on the case. Except that the SMC didn’t get permission for more than one lawyer to be “certified’’ (some professional ruling) and it’s odd that Dr Lim had to pay for “refresher’’ courses.

Mr Sharma, who recently retired as global chairman of Citi Private Bank was reported in ST as claiming that in one of its bills, WongP was charging what amounted to $77,102 for each day they were in court. In another, it was $46,729 for each day in court. And, for the third bill, this amounted to $100,000 per hour of hearing.

He cited the difference between initial and final bill as evidence of  “gross overcharging’’ and “improper conduct’’. But the LawSoc review committee seemed to think that just because the bill had been taxed down significantly does not mean there was professional misconduct involved. There must be evidence of impropriety as well. Besides, it added, Mr Yeo wasn’t involved in preparing the bill….(which sounds like it’s his secretary’s fault)

(Everything’s topsy-turvy. Doesn’t that look like a reason Dr Lim herself could give for charging $24million to her Bruneian patient? And I thought the courts had settled on the ethical principle of professionals charging “reasonably’’ and not just what the client/patient can pay.  Or does that apply only to doctors and not lawyers? Okay…I will be very careful now…)

I got hold of what the second registrar, Jacqueline Lee, said recently and they make for really interesting reading. I wish MSM gave the full works but since it didn’t… here goes…

  1. The lawyers wanted $900,000 as legal fees. Taxed down to $180,000

Seems that they were trying to bill for three lawyers rather than just for one lawyer that is certified. The argument: there was just one lawyer (never mind who, junior or senior) at every stage anyway. The registrar described the argument as a “glib’’ one which made “a mockery of the regime for certifying the costs of one solicitor.

She also threw out arguments on needing to “refresh’’ lawyers since there were breaks in between hearings and new people brought on board. One key thing she noted: although there were two inquiries, much had been done at the first one already so it really wasn’t so hard-going for the second committee. Also, Dr Lim didn’t call any witnesses. And she wasn’t responsible for the first committee recusing itself, necessitating a second committee to be set up.

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Plus, it seems the lawyers weren’t good at breaking down what they actually did during the hours they billed for: A total of 1,900 hours and $1,229,804.

The lawyers said: “Out of an abundance of caution, the amount stated is a reduced figure of the time spent.’’

The registrar’s reply: “I would approach that statement with great circumspection’’ The more relevant figure, she said, was 718 hours done by four lawyers.

What’s also interesting is how the lawyers threw in Law Minister K Shanmugam’s name into its “skeletal submission’’, saying that they had to handle correspondence from him while he was in the private sector acting for Dr Lim at the beginning of the whole kerfuffle.  The registrar ticked them off roundly and pointed out that the notice of inquiry was given in July 2009, “way after’’ Mr Shanmugam’s involvement ceased. “In my view, it was not necessary, and perhaps even mischievous, to highlight the long procedural history…’’

Woah! Lawyers also very good at name-dropping ah…

2. Legal assessors’ fees

I have been asking what legal assessors are and now I know: They are actually lawyers/legal people that the disciplinary committee can turn to for advice on questions of law. (No, I don’t know how they are appointed. Not public tender I suppose…)

The first disciplinary committee had Senior Counsel Giam Chin Toon who asked for $49,200 (at about $570 per hour) which the registrar described as “slightly above average’’. This was taxed down to $45,000.

The second committee had Senior Counsel Vinodh Coomaraswamy, who asked for $235,635.40 for some 224 hours of work done at $1,050 per hour. This was taxed down to $22,000 in all.

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That’s a gigantic drop, mainly because the registrar doesn’t have information on what he did for 180 of those 224 hours that were billed. (Taking out 32 hours that could be accounted for because there were sessions held, it seems the rest of the time was lumped under “attending internal meetings’’ with the committee and “perusing and reviewing documents’’.)

Again, she pointed out that it was the first committee which recused itself, hence another legal assessor who would really only need to read about what happened in the first session. Dr Lim shouldn’t be made to pay for “duplication’’ of effort.

3. Expert witness fees

Dr Tan Yew Oo claimed $12,145, which was brought down to $9,000

Dr Hong Ga Sze wanted $40,000, and this was taxed down to $5,000

The interesting thing here is what constitutes an expert witness. The case was not about botched procedures or medical treatment which would require a specialist in the field, but a question of how doctors decide on what to charge.

In the case of Dr Tan, his expert witness bill was more than what he would charge as a specialist doctor – and his medical expertise wasn’t even required in this case. The registrar looked at precedents before bringing the figure down.

Dr Ho’s case was more interesting. He was charging higher than Dr Tan even though he was more junior, spent less time on the stand and did a shorter report. He was claiming $14,000 for giving expert evidence on just one day, even though it was really about billing practices. He charged $6,000 for “standing by’’ to take the witness stand and $6,000 for preparing his short trial report (Dr Tan charged $1,000). He had a $14,000 bill for trial preparation which started from a date even before the notice of inquiry was issued to Dr Lim!

4. The ring binders

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Lawyers say $6 because have plastic sheets inside; but registrar noted they used $2.50 binders before….

That’s the full(er) story…I think. Anyway, I getting tired. Part 2 later.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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