Monday, 10 May 2021

Trainee lawyer's bid to be called to the Bar raises questions; judge calls for inquiry

SINGAPORE – An application by a trainee lawyer to be called to the Bar – usually an uneventful process – raised so many questions that a High Court judge said the matter should be “swiftly and vigorously” pursued by the relevant authorities.

Lawyer Tan Jeh Yaw, who supervised the six-month training stint of Mr Kuoh Hao Teng, had made the unusual move of objecting to the trainee’s application for admission to the Bar.

Mr Tan claimed Mr Kuoh played computer games and watched movies during office hours and did not complete the work assigned to him – allegations the trainee denied.

But in a twist, it emerged that Mr Tan, the sole proprietor of his firm, did not have the necessary qualifications to take on trainees.

This meant that even if Mr Tan had not objected, Mr Kuoh could not have been admitted under that application.

In grounds of decision released last Friday (April 9), Justice Choo Han Teck questioned whether the reasons given by Mr Tan for his objections were true and whether other trainees of Mr Tan have been admitted to the Bar.

The judge said: “It is remarkable that an application for admission to the Bar should raise so many questions yet yield so few answers.”

At least 100 such applications are made each year and “almost all pass uneventfully”, he noted.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) told The Straits Times it takes a serious view of the issues raised by the judge. Its spokesman said: “We are looking into the matter and will take all appropriate action.”

A Law Society spokesman said it will work with the AGC and the Singapore Institute of Legal Education “to ensure that practice trainees continue to receive training from properly qualified persons and with minimum disruption”.

The three bodies are in charge of supervising applications for admission to the Bar.

Mr Kuoh, who graduated from the University of Bristol in 2017, completed his training under Mr Tan on July 11, 2019.

On the final day of his training, Mr Kuoh presented the documents for his application to Mr Tan, who signed them on July 26 that year.

Among the documents was a checklist for a supervisor to check off the areas of training that a trainee had undergone.

Mr Kuoh felt that Mr Tan had not checked the list correctly. He prepared an amended list that he felt accurately reflected his training, and sent it to Mr Tan.

Not having received comments on the changes, Mr Kuoh submitted the documents on July 29, 2019.

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On Aug 14, Mr Tan filed an objection to Mr Kuoh’s admission.

The amended list became a matter of contention and the case was referred to the police. Mr Kuoh was issued a stern warning for forgery.

On April 27 last year, Mr Kuoh started a fresh training stint under the supervision of another lawyer, who gave him a glowing report.

He submitted a second application to be admitted to the Bar and withdrew his first. Mr Tan continued to oppose the new application.

Last Monday, Justice Choo granted Mr Kuoh’s second application and admitted him to the Bar after being told that Mr Tan had withdrawn his objections.

Mr Kuoh’s counsel, Ms Luo Ling Ling, sought costs from Mr Tan because she discovered that he was not qualified to take on trainees.

Under legal profession rules, a supervising lawyer must have had a practising certificate for at least five years out of the seven years before the start of the supervision.

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Ms Luo’s investigation revealed that Mr Tan had a practising certificate in force for only two years and 11 months in the relevant period.

Affidavits filed to the court also suggested that there were other trainees at Mr Tan’s firm.

Mr Kuoh told ST that his primary focus now is to secure a position to practise as a lawyer.

He said he has submitted representations to the AGC to retract the stern warning for what he said was a “misunderstanding”.

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