A client who kept his word

This is a true story of an unusual client: one who kept his word.

[1]. This is a true story.

[2]. The first meeting

A meeting was arranged, with the client, a Mr. Lee.

It was scheduled at 10.00 a.m, on a day the following week.

On the appointed day, at 9.58 a.m. the receptionist called, saiding a Mr. Lee was waiting to see me.

Two elderly men appeared at the door. I looked at the clock. It was exactly 10.00 am.

[3]. Mr. Lee was a pale, wiry man with a thinning white hair

I could use many words to describe him.

He was every inch, an old-fashioned, ethnic Chinese tycoon. He oozed quiet confidence and power.

An equally old gentleman, who introduced himself as ‘Mr. Tan’, accompanied him.

Mr. Tan bowed towards

Mr. Lee, and spoke:

‘This is Mr. Lee, I am Mr. Tan. I translate for Mr. Lee. I was a court interpreter for 40 years. There are many Chinese Business Associations (or ‘Kongsis’) in the country.

There is an umbrella organization that heads them. Mr. Lee is its Chairman.’

All that sounded like an unnecessary, medieval pre-battle introduction to me; and it sounded ominous.

It was only then that Mr. Lee took a seat. Mr. Tan, despite his age, remained standing. Mr. Lee spoke, Mr. Tan translated.

[4]. Mr. Lee’s opening salvo was unnerving

With all the authority of a king, with a clear, bell-like voice, he asked: ‘Have you read the brief?’

I said I had.

It was a simple story: Mr. Lee owned a commercial property in upmarket Bangsar. He had entered into an agreement to sell it for RM1.5 Million. The purchaser had paid a deposit of RM150,000.00.

The balance purchase price of RM1,350,00.00 was to be paid within 90 days of the payment of the deposit.

If the buyer defaulted, the law allowed Mr. Lee to terminate the agreement and he could forfeit the deposit. It was only on the 92nd day that the buyer had proffered a banker’s cheque for the balance purchase price.

Mr. Lee’s solicitor had, without consulting the client, terminated the agreement. He had also forfeited the deposit. This had been several years earlier.

[5]. The buyer sued Mr. Lee

The buyer wished to go through with the sale. By the time the case came to court, the property had shot up in value by almost 300%.

All Mr. Lee had to prove was that the buyer had crossed the 90-day mark.

The evidence in Mr. Lee’s favour was copious.

Then there were 2 letters from the buyer’s lawyer.

The buyer’s lawyer had admitted the delay.

He implored Mr. Lee’s solicitors to ‘….use your good offices to enable the transaction to go through’, as he said, ‘in good faith.’

[6]. So why had Mr. Lee come to see me?

What followed was an awkward conversation. It went like this.

[Translated by the ex-court interpreter, Mr. Tan in a torrent of Chinese].

Mr. Lee:  ‘Are you up to it?’

A little miffed, I said, ‘Yes’

Mr. Lee: ‘Do you have any idea who my previous counsels have been?’

GK: ‘No’.

Mr. Lee: [Rattles off a name of at least five lawyers, all of whom were current sitting judges of the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court].

Mr. Lee: [Again]. ‘So – can you do it?’

GK: ‘I can. Sir, if you are not comfortable with me,

I am sure your solicitor can recommend someone of your choice?’

Mr. Lee: ‘That won’t be necessary.

My solicitor seems to have some confidence in you, so we will go with you’.

He paused. He looked askance at Mr. Tan. ‘For now’, he said, rising. So he had come to size me up.

[7]. The Fees

We discussed fees. I quoted a figure. It was substantial.

He did not negotiate. Waving a dismissive hand at Mr. Tan, he rose, saiding,

‘That will be arranged’.

The fees arrived in a matter of hours.

[8]. The trial was only days away

We scrambled the entire team. We slogged through the weekend. We read every conceivable authority, previous cases and statutes.

[9]. The Trial

When the trial began, plaintiff’s counsel put a finger on the pulse of the case.

In his Opening Statement, he said, ‘Everything depends on when time starts to run; how time is calculated, and whether we paid the money in 90 days.’

So, like good old-fashioned lawyers, we confined ourselves to one issue only: calculation of time, and all evidence relating to it.

[10]. The plaintiff’s counsel was thorough

He called witnesses and showed the court the agreement, ensuing correspondence and other documents,

He tried to establish his case with quiet efficiency.

[11]. It was my turn to cross-examine the plaintiff’s star witness

Mr. Lee and Mr. Tan sat at the gallery. When we scored a point, Mr. Tan would nod. The cadaverous Mr. Lee betrayed no emotion.

All the while I could sense his boring into my back. During ‘cross’, as we lawyers call it, I forced the Plaintiff’s main witness to admit that payments were made late: only after the 92nd day had the balance purchase price been paid.

I continued to probe, seeking more admissions.

[12]. At one point, trying to evading the onslaught, the witness blurted

‘Although we might have been late by a few days, Mr. Lee actually waived the delay.  He said he was prepared to go ahead with the agreement. So we sent across the banker’s cheque for RM135,000.00’.

[13]. I heard a sudden rustle in the gallery

I turned around. Mr. Lee was on his feet, livid. He pointed a tremulous finger at the witness.

‘Liar!’ he hissed.

In the sepulchral silence of the court, it was as if a cannon had gone off. Bristling with fury, plaintiff’s counsel rose to protest. The judge waved him down: and peered at me over his spectacles.

‘You might wish to rein in your client. Any more of this histrionics and I will throw him out’.

He stared at Mr. Lee pointedly.

‘Please sir, Mr. Lee,’ I implored, ‘Do please remain silent’.

Subsiding, Mr. Lee shook his head.

‘I’m a gentleman’, he muttered darkly, ‘and if I had said it, I would have kept my word.’

For the entire duration of the plaintiff’s case, Mr. Lee continued to regard the plaintiff’s witnesses with the venom and intent of a cobra eying a trapped mouse.

By their third witness, the plaintiff’s case had crumpled. Deflated, the Plaintiff’s counsel closed his case.

[14]. Was it a No Case To Answer situation?

At a time like this, defence counsel can either call his evidence and challenge the plaintiff’s case.

In the clearest of cases, he can argue that there was nothing to answer, and say to the Court: ‘No Case to answer’.

It was almost lunch. The trial judge pointed to the latter course.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, nodding towards me, ‘Please return after lunch and tell me what you intend to do.’

I suspected that I would then have closed my case, and the trial judge would give us a date to submit written copies of our Final Submissions.

There was no question that our client had won the case.

[15]. During lunch one of the lawyers made a remark

He said that as Christmas would soon be upon us, we shall have to complete the work on two other, unrelated, appeal briefs – in quick order.

[16]. Suddenly a horrible doubt gnawed at me

‘Public holiday’?

The law and the facts were on our side. But if the parties had calculated time in a pre-arranged fashion, it did not matter what the law said.

So what had the parties agreed?

The team’s view was this was:

(1). a ‘Standard’ sale agreement would simply follow the general law.

(2). After all, it was our client’s previous solicitor who had drafted the agreement.

(3). And it was he who had triggered the deposit clause

(4). and had forfeited the deposit.

(5).  Surely, he could not have overlooked so basic a point?

(6). The defendants had pleaded their case – on that assumption – and on it, we had broken the Plaintiff’s case.

(7). The ensuing correspondence between the parties had said nothing about any such clause.

(8). And both sides had proceeded on that assumption no such clause existed.

So the team thought I was being over-anxious.

[17]. I would not be mollified

It was so troubling that I began plunging through the reams of trial records.

Imagine my horror, when I discovered a contractual clause placed in an unobtrusive appendix.

It said, ‘in ascertaining the time, public holidays shall be excluded’. Neither party had noticed it, nor had witnesses been asked questions of it. Even the judge, known for his eagle eye, had missed it.

What had been the date of the agreement?

What was the date of the 90th day?

In between, were there any public holidays? I asked team members to locate calendars of several years ago. Frantic calls were made to chambers. Two calendars were rushed to the court canteen.

Both pointed to a Chinese New Year holiday that had been overlooked.

And it was exactly for two days. We calculated and recalculated the days.

I concluded that the plaintiffs had paid the monies on time.

Mr. Lee was not to be found. He had returned to his office. I called him. He promised to hurry back to court.

[18]. Meanwhile, the trial had recommenced…

I told the judge that I had to confer with my client.

I asked for a short recess. The judge seemed surprised.

‘What on earth are you waiting for? Plead a No Case to Answer, man!’ seemed to be the silent answer by a raised eyebrow.

[19]. I tell the client what must be done

When Mr. Lee returned, I told him all about it.

He regarded me silently for a few minutes. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘What should we do now?’

I replied, ‘We need to concede liability. And you would lose your case. And you would have to hand over the property.’ I offered a weak apology: ‘I am so sorry,’ I muttered.

He regarded me with a smile.

‘I’m a gentleman,’ said he, placing a hand upon my forearm, ‘and I keep my word. Tell the judge what you think is right. I will follow through. And it is not your fault.’

[20]. So I tell the judge

The trial judge shook his head. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Let me look at the clause.’

He read it. ‘Hmmm. I agree with you. So what now?’

My opponents were overjoyed.

I asked for a consent judgement. There is another ruffle in court.

[21]. From the gallery, Mr. Lee was addressing the judge!

‘I am a gentleman, My Lord.

My counsel tells me it is not fair for me to proceed in this way.

If this is what my counsel says, then I will do as he says.

The property will be delivered to the buyer so long as they pay the balance purchase price.’

[22]. We recording a consent judgement

For his part, the judge did not order costs against us. He waived away any argument on damages.

As he rose to depart, he nodded in my direction and thanked Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee bowed low.

[23]. The buyer paid the balance purchase price of RM1,350,000.00 –into our client’s account

I send a message to Mr. Tan, asking Mr. Lee  to collect his cheque. Mr. Tan then called, saying Mr. Lee was to undergo a pre-arranged coronary surgery in Singapore.

Mr. Tan said, ‘Mr. Lee would be in touch after his surgery’.

[24]. A week passed.  The phone rang

The receptionist said, ‘It is about old man Lee… It is his relative calling from Singapore’.

I say to myself, ‘Oh dear. What now?’

Expecting the worst, I attend to the call with trepidation. ‘My name is Peter’ says an oxford-accented voice on the other side.

And I am Mr. Lee’s son-in-law.’

I asked after Lee. Peter said the surgery had been done, but that things were not looking up.

[25]. He has a burning question

He asked if the Balance purchase Price has been paid into our client’s account. The words shot out of my mouth before I could think about it, ‘I cannot speak to you at all about this.

Your father-in-law is my client, not you. I cannot discuss the details of the case with you.’

The son-in-law said a few choice words to me. I called off. After the call, I suffered a sudden anxiety. What if I had displeased Mr. Lee?

[26]. Two weeks passed. Mr. Tan telephoned again

He asked for an appointment at 10 a.m. the next day.

Knowing Mr. Lee’s punctuality, exactly one minute before 10.00 a.m., I made my way to the reception, there to be confronted by a motley group of men.

Behind a frail and pallid Mr. Lee stood a beaming Mr. Tan, and just off him to the side stood two young men bearing a large tarpaulin-wrapped object.

Mr. Lee rose with a spring. With uncharacteristic warmth, he slapped my forearm, and pumped my hand vigorously.

When I said, ‘I am sorry sir, but I could say nothing to your son-in-law’, he waves an energetic ‘thumbs-up’ before my face.

We made our way to my chambers.  The men follow. I wonder why.

Mr. Lee said: ‘You know, in business honour is the most crucial factor. Thank you for preserving my name.’

He then uttered many benedictions. Mr. Tan is bobbing his head, smiling.

Imperiously, Mr. Lee waved at the two young men who stood unobtrusively at a corner.

[27]. They unravelled a long black wooden plaque

On it were engraved, in gold filigree, several Chinese words.

I asked for a translation.

Mr. Tan says it is the name of our firm, and my name, followed by certain complimentary words.

[28]. The plaque adorns our reception to this day

Months later, I received a call from Mr. Tan.

He says, ‘I fear I have sad news. Mr. Lee passed away last night.’

I asked permission to visit Mr. Lee to pay my last respects.

Mr. Tan said, ‘You don’t have to. Mr. Lee knows your heart. If he had been alive, Mr. Lee would realise that you’d be very busy. And he would be loath to trouble you.’

That night we recited a prayer for Mr. Lee.

I have never forgotten Mr. Lee.

[29]. And his plaque adorns our reception to this day

This is how it looks like.

Each time I look at it, an enormous sense of warmth floods my chest.

I know not why.

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