KUALA LUMPUR, May 28 ― Putrajaya is attempting to meddle with the Malaysian Bar and compromise its independence through proposed changes to the Legal Profession Act (LPA) 1976, the body’s former presidents warned.
Former Malaysian Bar president Lim Chee Wee urged the federal government to halt the “madness” of its plans to amend the law which would include introducing government appointees into the decision-making council of the professional body for all lawyers in Peninsular Malaysia.
“I am flabbergasted that the government wants to interfere with the Bar to the extent of having a direct say in its affairs. The only natural inference is that this is a reprisal against the Bar's principled stand against the wrongs of the government.
“I urge the good people in Cabinet and government to stop this madness,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted yesterday.
Another former Malaysian Bar president, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, noted the importance of an independent Bar for the independent administration of justice.
“I see this as a direct interference into the affairs of the Bar and Bar Council. Clearly the government sees an independent Bar as a threat to their wielding of untrammelled power against the citizens.
“The Malaysian Bar is well respected internationally for its courage and defence of the rule of law, no matter the consequences to itself,” she told Malay Mail Online.
Viewing the proposed new law to be another example of the undermining of rule of law here, Ambiga urged that it be resisted by “all right thinking Malaysians who value the brave voice of the legal profession in an ever increasing move towards a dictatorship.”
Yesterday, the current Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru issued a circular on the proposed LPA changes to all the professional body's members, informing them of Putrajaya's plans to have the minister in charge of legal affairs appoint two government representatives to the Bar Council, to change the Bar Council's election process and composition and to increase the required quorum for the Bar's general meetings.
Slated for tabling in the next Parliament session starting from October, the LPA amendments will also give the minister in charge of legal affairs the power to make rules and regulations on the conduct of the Bar Council elections.
Ragunath Kesavan, also a former president of the professional body, highlighted the proposed LPA amendments' flaws, pointing out that the current election system for the Malaysian Bar's office bearers is more “democratic” than the planned new method.
The voting of the four office bearers of the Malaysian Bar is currently done by the 38 members of the Bar Council, where every state has equal weight with two representatives regardless of their membership size, while the proposed new system of having all 17,000 members voting for the office bearers would risk creating a bias in favour of candidates from Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, he explained.
“When you let 38 people vote, the KL and Selangor vote is 20 per cent but when you have vote of Peninsular Malaysia, the voting 70 per cent is from KL and Selangor.
“If a lawyer from Kelantan is standing for Malaysian Bar, how many lawyers in KL and Selangor will vote for him or her as president? So it's unfair for the small states because there won't be name recognition.
“People won't know who is the lawyer. The majority of people will be from the Klang Valley,” he said, highlighting that the current system had in comparison seen presidents and office bearers from outside the Klang Valley elected.
He said the government's plans to limit Bar Council members to serve for a fixed term of two years is “silly and counterproductive” as it appears there will be a completely different council every two years, arguing that there will be no “continuity” in the work.
“But there's an election, people elect them, if they are doing a good job, why must you stop them from holding office?” he questioned, saying that it would effectively hamper lawyers who want to serve in the Bar Council which he added was a thankless, unpaid role.
He highlighted how crucial it is to have Bar Council work carried out by those familiar with their roles, where 90 per cent of the work revolves around rule of law, regulating the legal profession and working together with the government, the Attorney-General's Chambers and the judiciary on matters that affect the public.
He also questioned why there was a need for the government to appoint members to the Bar Council when all its other members are elected, saying it gives the impression the government is interfering and wants to keep an eye on the Bar Council.
“As long as it’s within the law and Constitution why are you so upset with people who disagree with you? This is a huge overreaction to what the Bar Council has been doing.
“The Bar Council speaks without fear or favour. None of the members have any personal benefit and if there is an ineffective Bar Council, it would have a huge negative impact on the independence of the judicial system and foreign investors will have lesser confidence on the judicial system without an independent Bar,” he said.
Putrajaya should accept criticism and dissent as part of democracy, as attempts to stifle it would only cause greater public anger and dissatisfaction, he said.
Current Bar Council member Roger Chan told Malay Mail Online that the proposed LPA amendments are unnecessary and “will have serious implications for the independence of the Bar, an indispensable pillar in rule of law.”