I don’t know about you but I am getting absolutely confused about charges and fees of professionals. I’m glad I’m not a lawyer or a doctor. It means I am not in a position to impede access to justice or deny medical care to the sick. Of course, I also don’t make as much money. This piece is pro bono, by the way.
Anyway, I was thinking about the Dr Susan Lim case, or rather, its aftermath. How strange it is that the doctor guilty of overcharging a patient is herself now being overcharged. The case isn’t a straight-forward two party fight. So the Singapore Medical Council hired (?) a law firm to handle its disciplinary inquiries into her case. One committee was convened, and it later recused itself. Then Dr Lim tried to stop a second committee from forming by going to the High Court – and failed. She went before the second committee which said she was wrong, and therefore has to pay the SMC’s legal cost for both committees.
So Dr Lim was presented with two sets of bills, for the High Court case and for the two disciplinary committees. In both instances, she – or rather her husband – disputed the amounts that was put up by Wong Partnership to the SMC and so they went to court to get them “taxed’’.
In August 2013, a $1m-plus bill was cut to $370,000 – for the High Court case. And lately, a $1.33 m bill was taxed down to $317,000 – for the two committees. In total, the original bills amounted to $2.33million, and was brought down to $687,000. It is believed that the SMC will be appealing the second amount, as it did the first. We’ve yet to hear anything.
I gather that the process is this: the lawyers bill the SMC, and the SMC sends the bill over to the other side. Two writers to ST Forum page have already weighed in to say that the SMC, a statutory board under the Ministry of Health, seems to be paying private lawyers whatever fees they ask for without much scrutiny. Bear in mind that the SMC is funded by taxpayers and doctors’ registration fees and you would think it would take greater care over its finances.
One immediate question on the Susan Lim case would be: Even if the amounts were taxed down, that is, Dr Lim doesn’t have to pay $2million or so, how does the SMC pay Wong Partnership then? Does it have to make up for the shortfall? Or did it pay everything first in the hope that the amounts from Dr Lim would not be disputed? The SMC owes the public an answer. If it did pay the full amount of $1m plus for the first set of bills (and I understand that this is the case and I really hope to be told that I’m wrong) then where did SMC get the money from?
Another question is this: Why did the SMC itself not dispute the lawyers’ bill, if not the first time, then the second time? Surely, the fact that the first set of bills was lowered so drastically would mean that it would look more closely at the second set of bills?
The SMC should really clear the air over this or it would seem that it – or its lawyers – was out to get whatever it can from the errant doctor.
Letter-writer Jeremy Lim said that the SMC should have the legal fees it has paid out over the years independently reviewed “to ensure there have not been other episodes of overcharging that have gone undetected’’. I agree. In this case, we have a doctor and her ex-banker husband, presumably with deep enough pockets to hire their own lawyers, disputing the fees. What about other less well-off doctors?
Another letter writer, Mr Peter Chen, said this: “I understand that legal fees incurred by a doctor in his own defence are not recoverable, even if he is cleared of wrongdoing. It is because of these astronomical legal fees that some doctors would rather admit guilt and face a short suspension than try to clear their names – and end up with a bill that might put them out of business.’’
Is that so? How come? Wouldn’t this mean that anyone with a (frivolous) complaint against a doctor can try his luck with the SMC – and not pay for the doctor’s legal cost of defending himself even if the doctor is in the clear?
As for the legal assessors and expert witnesses, surely the SMC is au fait enough with the fees such professionals had charged in the past to ensure that they were not so far out of line? After all, the registrar could cite several precedents involving the SMC when she taxed down the amounts.
Then there are the SMC lawyers themselves, such as the lead lawyer Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo. Dr Lim and her husband, Mr Deepak Sharma, want the Law Society to investigate him for professional misconduct – and that was over the first set of bills. A review committee of the Law Society didn’t think that was needed because there was no evidence of “impropriety’’. (This makes it seems like overcharging is okay, especially since there is a taxation process with the courts acting like a watchdog. Doesn’t it take money to get the courts to look at the bill? And another lawyer to argue the case? )
Mr Sharma is going for broke and wants the court to review the Law Society’s decision. The irony is that he can’t seem to get a Senior Counsel to represent him (most cite knowing Mr Yeo personally) and is applying to get a Queen’s Counsel to do so. Sheesh. Our legal fraternity is really so small! Everyone knows everyone, or at least every SC knows every SC!
With Mr Yeo’s second set of bills also taxed down, it would seem that Mr Sharma has more fodder…
I am now looking forward to the Singapore Medical Council’s reply to the two Forum Page letters. Methinks Mr Yeo should say something too, especially since he is a Member of Parliament. He shouldn’t let his reputation and his integrity be called into question. Oversight? Mistake? Commercial decisions? Market rates? Or someone in the firm added one too many zeros?