Singapore Court refuses permission to instruct UK silk

The Singaporean High Court has refused permission for a suspected $50m fraudster to instruct London counsel to defend criminal proceedings against him.

The ruling will come as a blow to the nascent English bar that is beginning to emerge in the jurisdiction. A number of British sets have opened in Singapore in recent years with a hope of getting mandates on domestic cases, 39 Essex Street, 20 Essex Street and One Essex Court amongst them (26 June 2012).

The Singapore court, however, said that former investment manager Chew Eng Han could not instruct 5 Paper Buildings’ Jonathan Caplan QC to defend him because the legal issues were not such that they were beyond the comprehension of a domestic lawyer.

Chew is one of six individuals who have been charged in connection with defrauding City Harvest Church, in which they are accused of misappropriating over S$50m of the church’s funds and falsifying accounts to cover it up.

In January he instructed KhattarWong’s partner PE Ashokan to help him source a UK counsel and apply for permission to use a silk whilst retaining him as solicitor.

When the application was refused by the Attorney-General Chambers and the Law Society Chew made an appeal to the Singapore High Court.

Justice VK Rajah rejected the case in a 50-page judgment earlier this month (7 April 2013 judgment).

The judge ruled that the transactions – namely, bond subscriptions and redemptions, rental advances, loans, set-offs and book entry accounting – could not conceivably be viewed as being so convoluted or esoteric as to be beyond the comprehension of competent local counsel.

Furthermore, the relevant documents, although voluminous, are not so factually complex as to be beyond the management of any competent local counsel, the court said.

Chew argued that he should be able to use foreign counsel after he was refused representation by five different counsel and, or law firms declined to act for him. This came after Rajah & Tann partner Francis Xavier, who had agreed to represent him, pulled out of the case because of conflicts.

Justice Rajah emphasised that there remained to be tapped a substantial number of more than competent local counsel to represent the accused, as “there remains available in several areas of practice (including commercial law and criminal law) a number of highly able practising counsel who are not senior counsel”.

Singapore amended its Legal Profession Act last year to make it easier for English QCs to appear in the domestic courts (15 February 2012). Since then, it has become an attractive proposition for sets looking for instructions from the international market. London sets 20 Essex Street and Essex Court Chambers were the first to open in the region in June 2009 (22 June 2009), followed last year by both One Essex Court and 39 Essex Street (26 June 2012). Stone Chambers also plans to launch in the city state (4 March 2013).