SINGAPORE – A veteran criminal lawyer with nearly three decades of experience was struck off the roll on Wednesday, after the Court of Three Judges noted that his “objectionable conduct” – ranging from making false declarations to mislead the court to urging a client to get a medical certificate to explain his absence from court – pointed towards a “gross failure” to fulfil a lawyer’s duty to the court.
Mr Udeh Kumar Sethuraju’s repeated adjournments of cases were also “intolerable”, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, delivering the judgement on behalf of the court.
“This is not a case of an occasional lapse that may be forgiven… (Mr Kumar) disregarded the legitimate interest of all the other stakeholders in the justice system over a sustained period of time,” he said.
The ex-lawyer faced 28 charges, brought against him by the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) following complaints from the Attorney-General and the State Courts.
A Disciplinary Tribunal found that 11 charges were severe enough to be raised to the Court of Three Judges. These related to Mr Kumar’s conduct in representing a particular client, his habit of being tardy or absent from hearings, and his failure to avoid unnecessary adjournment, expense and waste of the court’s time.
Lawyers representing the LawSoc called for a suspension of 12 to 15 months, but the Court chose instead to disbar Mr Kumar, who has a long history of disciplinary issues.
In 2013, the Court of Three Judges suspended him from practice for three months over improper conduct relating to a client’s sale of a house. A Disciplinary Tribunal fined Mr Kumar S$20,000 on two separate occasions: For being absent or late for hearings in 2013 and for poor case management in 2015.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the court was told of the time when one of Mr Kumar’s clients missed his court hearing, as he had not been informed about it by the lawyer. Mr Kumar later urged the client to see a doctor to “save his ass” and offered to get a doctor’s memo on his behalf – for a fee of S$300.
Due to the court absence, the client’s bail of S$10,000 was forfeited. Mr Kumar offered to repay him, but to date, he has only paid the client S$5,000.
In another charge, Mr Kumar wrote a letter to a High Court judge stating that he had “just recently” been told that a client had appointed him to appeal his case, and he had been unable to see the client “due to a lack of visit slots” in jail.
But in an affidavit, Mr Kumar offered a different version of the incident. “I was looking at the hearing list in relation to other matters, I realised that there was a hearing for his appeal… I was then reminded that he had initially requested me to help with his appeal,” he said.
Senior Counsel N Sreenivasan, who was defending Mr Kumar, said that the ex-lawyer was very hardworking, but faltered due to a mismanagement of his cases. But Mr Sreenivasan conceded that “the totality of the picture is someone very slipshod, someone who doesn’t have regard for the proper way of doing things, someone who has bitten off more than he can chew”.
Chief Justice Menon, however, felt that the problem went beyond poor management. “It seems to be disregard for the court. I was dismayed that an officer of the court would behave this way. I don’t think we can sweep it aside as a matter of mismanagement,” he said. “I can’t think of a more objectionable conduct of a solicitor standing before the court.”
Mr Kumar declined to comment after the hearing.