SINGAPORE: The Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) has been compelled to refund S$32,000 (US$23,700) to Christopher James de Souza, a Member of Parliament for Holland–Bukit Timah GRC and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, after his exoneration from alleged professional misconduct.
The saga began with Mr de Souza facing five charges by LawSoc. A tribunal comprising Senior Counsel N. Sreenivasan and Mr Pradeep Pillai identified possible grounds for disciplinary action against him on one of these charges while absolving him of the other four.
The crux of the issue was whether Mr de Souza had failed to make a “full and frank disclosure” to the court about his client, Amber Compounding Pharmacy Pte. Ltd and Amber Laboratories Pte. Ltd, infringing the terms of a search order.
Although the tribunal initially found grounds for disciplinary action, the Court of Three Judges—comprising Justices Belinda Ang, Woo Bih Li, and Kannan Ramesh—disagreed, emphasizing that there was no intention on Mr de Souza’s part to suppress information. This led to his complete acquittal, as the court ruled that LawSoc did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. de Souza intended to help his client suppress evidence.
Justice Kannan Ramesh wrote in the ground of decision, “It appeared from the evidence that he genuinely believed that he had effectively disclosed Amber’s breach of the Search Order Undertaking to the court in Sudesh’s 29/1/19 Affidavit, including the fact that some information from the Documents had already been conveyed to the Authorities. For this reason, Mr de Souza could not be said to have been party to, or have assisted with, any suppression of evidence, which he was in a position to prevent.”
LawSoc is ordered to refund the amount Mr de Souza paid, comprising both costs and disbursements.
Reacting to the outcome, Mr de Souza’s counsel from WongPartnership, Senior Counsel Tan Chee Meng and Mr Calvin Ong, stated: “He is humbled by the result and feels fully vindicated.”
They added that Mr de Souza is eager to “continue focusing on his many duties – to family, country, and practice”.
The case initially surfaced from observations by the Court of Appeal regarding the High Court judge’s handling of documents obtained from the search order.
An Inquiry Committee convened on 13 January 2021, recommending only a fine for Mr de Souza without the need for further investigation.
However, LawSoc sought a disciplinary tribunal, which led to the contested proceedings and the initial S$18,000 cost order against Mr de Souza.
His legal team argued that LawSoc should bear the costs for the hearing before the Court of Three Judges as well, alleging that the investigations and prosecution were “unjustified” and “oppressive”.
Despite these claims, the court decided against an adverse costs order for LawSoc for this hearing.
In a statement underscoring the outcome, Mr de Souza’s lawyers pointed to the court’s judgment, which asserted that “Mr de Souza had indeed disclosed the client’s breaches to the court,” which was “fatal to the Law Society’s case theory”.
With this judicial acknowledgment, the MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC expressed relief that “the matter has been finally closed and he has been fully vindicated”.
Finding of tribunal
On 5 December 2018, Amber was advised by Mr de Souza and Lee & Lee to file an urgent application for leave, in the civil proceedings, for Amber to preserve and use the documents seized pursuant to the Search Orders for the purposes of making criminal reports.
In a pre-trial conference(PTC) held on 23 January 2019, Mr de Souza requested for an extension to complete the Listing Exercise, without disclosing the breach to the Court.
After the PTC, Mr de Souza requested for an extension of time to complete the Listing Exercise by 5 April 2019 in a letter dated 25 January 2019 to Defendant’s counsels, without mentioning the breach.
The Tribunal report found that Mr de Souza was clearly aware that documents and information had already been used and that his client was determined not to be honest with the Court.
The tribunal’s documents detail the exchanges between Mr de Souza and Amber, painting a picture of the legal complexities and the meticulous nature of the disclosure process.
According to the disciplinary tribunal’s report, the Lee & Lee team maintained an unyielding position on the disclosure of Amber’s breach of undertakings in the supporting affidavit, as evident from the chronology of amendments.
“Such an unflinching attitude was maintained by Mr de Souza even though he was of the knowledge that the defendants had not yet been contacted by the authorities. At no point in time did the team, including Mr de Souza, waver in their position that the fact of Amber’s previous breach must be disclosed to the court.”
The report said even when Mr Sudesh raised a ruckus, the team acquiesced to the extent of re-wording the paragraph but without losing the essence of its content.
When Mr Sudesh attempted further amendments, Mr de Souza promptly identified them as inappropriate due to their false impression.
The Tribunal concluded that Amber’s failure to fully and frankly disclose amounted to suppression of evidence, and Mr de Souza, as a party to and facilitator of the suppression, assisted in the act by filing the supporting affidavit.