Sunday, January 6, 2008

Singaporean lawyers cannot hold clients' money?!

CJ considers stricter rules for lawyers

Sunday, 06 January 2008 09:38am
The Sunday Times, Singapore (Used by permission)by Selina Lum
TIGHTER rules have already been put in place, but it seems there are still ways for a lawyer to make off with clients' money.Now, the Chief Justice is wondering if lawyers should be barred from holding clients' money altogether.He has appointed Judge of Appeal V. K. Rajah to head a committee to study whether such a system is feasible and desirable.
CJ Chan Sek Keong made the announcement at the opening of the legal year yesterday, attended by judges, lawyers, legal officers and other members of the legal community.Six new Senior Counsel were appointed at the ceremony, and new Law Society president Michael Hwang made his debut speech.As is customary, the CJ gave a report card of the work of the courts in the past year and announced new initiatives, such as a website for lawyers to keep up to date with legal developments.
Without naming names, CJ Chan referred to the case of rogue lawyer Zulkifli Amin, who went missing in November. He apparently skipped town for the Philippines after siphoning some $6 million of his clients' money.
Last year, the Law Society tightened the Solicitors' Accounts Rules, which govern how lawyers handle clients' money, as a better check against embezzlement.This change followed from at least eight cases where lawyers ran off with millions. One of them, David Rasif, swiped $12 million and is now missing.'But the latest incident shows that these measures cannot prevent desperate or crooked lawyers from helping themselves to clients' monies,' the CJ said.
Mr Zulkifli is the first errant lawyer since the new rules came into force to protect clients' money. Among the rules: two signatures are needed to withdraw sums higher than $30,000. Investigations are ongoing, but according to sources, Mr Zulkifli may have forged the second signature or perpetuated some fraud.Yesterday, CJ Chan said: 'We need to face reality and come up with a workable scheme to protect clients' monies.'While the obvious solution was to prohibit lawyers from receiving clients' money, this would 'change radically a conveyancing system which has been in place for more than a hundred years', he acknowledged. It may also affect the efficiency of the property market, a concern lawyers interviewed also raised.
Justice Rajah's working party, which will comprise representatives of all stakeholders in the property market, will study the ramifications of such a change, he said.It has been given three to five months to study the problem and make its recommendations.Lawyers interviewed yesterday were in favour of such a system, saying it will probably involve an independent body holding or administering the money. Speaking to reporters, Senior Counsel Hwang said he did not think the Chief Justice is thinking about a total ban because there have not been any problems with lawyers who hold clients' money in non-property transactions.
'You can't abolish this thing overnight. If we abolish the holding of clients' money, we will probably be the only country in the common law world to do so,' he said.'Whatever system you have, you can't stop outright, deliberate, malicious embezzlement. All you can do is try and make it more difficult.'

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