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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 16 — Despite introducing a mechanism to guard against sexual harassment in the legal profession 13 years ago, the Malaysian Bar has only had one case recorded, according to lawyer Joshua Moghana Sundaram.
He claimed sexual harassment is one of the biggest issues plaguing the legal profession in Malaysia and the victims were primarily young lawyers.
“This is the case since in the legal profession, seniority is prioritised. The Malaysian Bar unanimously adopted a mechanism in March 2007 to address sexual harassment, but only recently has that mechanism been found to be faulty,” he told reporters outside Wisma Badan Peguam — the headquarters of the Malaysian Bar — on Leboh Pasar Besar today.
The 24-year-old who has been fully practising law for just a month noted that a report was made late last month about a legal hurdle in the mechanism that prevented an inquiry into a sexual harassment allegation from being held.
He said victims of sexual harassment in law firms should be informed of this flaw.
“This will save them from wasting time, and the Bar should be clear on allowing them to move forward. As far as I am concerned there needs to be accountability and transparency from them over the mechanism,” he said.
Asked if he knew whether any police reports were lodged against perpetrators of sexual harassment in the legal profession, Joshua said only the Bar would know if that is the case and if so how many reports have been lodged to date.
A senior lawyer present at the petition handover, 54-year old KA Ramu, said his peers need to step up and show leadership.
“They should show how such issues can be tackled. In Peninsular Malaysia alone there are around 20,600 practicing lawyers.
“Every year an estimated 600 to 700 new lawyers join the profession, especially young women. I worry for them because I have been hearing of many things happening to them which has made me deeply uncomfortable,” he said, adding that he has also heard of young male lawyers on the receiving end.
The 20-year legal veteran said another factor to be considered is the requirement of the pupil’s master to sign a certificate of good behaviour for the student.
“If this certificate is not signed, then the pupil will not be called to the Bar. So there is the underlying fear in the pupil’s mind that they have to be good to their superior.
“Frankly, I hope the Bar Council will take this petition seriously, otherwise it is a bad image for the entire legal profession in Malaysia,” Ramu said.
Joshua and Ramu, along with six other lawyers, had started a signature drive campaigning to humane treatment for lawyers in the workplace. This included highlight sexual harassment and unfair pay for trainee lawyers.
To date, the group has collected 4,254 signatures. Their petition was handed over to National Young Lawyers and Pupils’ Committee chairman Yusfarizal Yusoff.
They want the Malaysian Bar to act on their grievances without delay and said they would raise it again at the next Bar annual general meeting if not done by then.
The group is also seeking a meeting with de facto law minister Datuk Takiyuddin Hassan to discuss their concerns.
They said redressing the issues could require revising the Legal Profession Act 1976.