Friday, August 14, 2009

Cheated of property and $1.2m

Brothers' signatures were forged; court deletes rogue lawyer's name from title deed after 5-year battle

CHEATED of their property when their lawyer forged their signatures to seize ownership, three brothers had to come up with another $700,000 to prevent the bank from selling off the building.

Yesterday, their five-year-long plight finally ended when the High Court ordered the rogue lawyer's name to be removed from the property title deed and replaced by their names instead.

The brothers, Mr Sim Chiang Lee, Mr Sim Sien Tong and Mr Sim Ah Ban, now in their 50s and 60s, were partners and shareholders in a family business that included provisions, hardware and realty.

Their ordeal began in March 2004 when then lawyer Sivakolunthu Thirunavukarasu, now 51, forged their signatures and transferred ownership of a factory they had purchased to her name.

Among other things, Sivakolunthu drafted documents that made out that the three brothers had sold the premises in Chai Chee to her.

To cover her tracks, she included one of the brothers, Mr Sim Chiang Lee, as co-owner with her.
The forged documents stated that Sivakolunthu owned 75 per cent of the property - worth $1.4 million - while the remaining 25 per cent was supposedly in Mr Sim Chiang Lee's name.

The lawyer then mortgaged the property to a bank for a $700,000 loan by forging Mr Sim Chiang Lee's signature, and skipped town in May that year.

She is still on the run.

In August 2005, after her fraudulent work was uncovered, the bank acted on the mortgage default and the brothers had no option but to pay up or see the bank sell off the premises.

The bank took its case to the High Court, which confirmed it had a valid mortgage, which could be enforced.

The brothers contested the move all the way to the Court of Appeal where they lost and have yet to settle the legal costs of the move.

One small compensation was the brothers were entitled to the rent from the building, which had been leased from the time Sivakolunthu was found out. They received $226,000 in January this year.

Altogether Sivakolunthu swiped $2.4 million from more than a dozen victims in early 2004, by mortgaging four properties, but the Sim brothers suffered the most.

They lost $1.2 million as she also swiped $500,000 which they paid into the clients' account of the law firm she worked in.

The Sim brothers, who were represented by lawyer Philip Fong of Harry Elias Partnership, were all shareholders and partners in several businesses they ran, including Sin Aik Provision Store, Sin Aik Realty and Sin Aik Hardware.

Contacted last night, Mr Sim Ah Ban expressed disappointment that Sivakolunthu remains missing and said he was in no mood to talk.

'A loss is a loss,' he added.

Their case was among those cited by the Law Ministry recently when it proposed new rules for the handling of money in property deals.

Under the proposals, now the subject of a public feedback exercise, lawyers will no longer be allowed to handle conveyancing monies and deposits will be placed with approved institutions.

In the past five years, five rogue lawyers have absconded with almost $20 million of their clients' money; four are yet to be caught.

A fifth, Victor Tan, who handed himself to police in late 2007, is currently behind bars serving a 54-month sentence after being convicted of misappropriating $32,000 from a client.

Proposed safeguards
THE Law Ministry had made several recommendations to protect monies entrusted to lawyers by buyers and sellers of properties.

On Tuesday, it proposed that all payments for property deals will, in future, be held by the Singapore Academy of Law or commercial banks, and not law firms.

The general details of how this will work were released by the Law Ministry, as it sought public feedback on a final solution to the longstanding problem of some lawyers running off with their clients' money.

Among other proposals, the ministry suggested that the academy take over the role of the law firm in holding the deposit, which it pays out in due course. Clients do not have to deal with the academy directly. Property buyers and sellers will also not be inconvenienced.

The ministry is in talks with local banks such as UOB, OCBC and DBS to provide the service.

Source: Straits TImes, 14 Aug 2009

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