OCTOBER 3 — Lawyer Edmund Bon sparked a storm in the legal fraternity when he proposed the radical idea of a do-it-yourself (DIY) law to empower ordinary people to buy property, get a divorce, or draft a will without necessarily relying on lawyers.
Bon’s project is simple — create templates and apps for standard legal documents and teach the public how to use them; sales and purchase (S&P) agreements, wills and probate in uncontested cases, accident claims, divorce petitions, as well as bail application and mitigation in criminal cases.
Lawyers shot down the proposal as a populist move and told me that buying and selling property and getting a divorce are very complicated procedures that are best undertaken with legal assistance.
Bon’s contention is that such legal documents are not as complex as lawyers make them out to be and that there are “boiler plate” clauses in documents like S&P agreements, and uncontested wills and probate.
His critics, however, asked darkly what would happen if ordinary people used those template agreements on their own and, heaven forbid, screwed things up. Then they’d have to go back to lawyers anyway.
According to Bon, the kind of work in conveyancing, corporate law or litigation that requires a high degree of legal expertise are cases like the sale and purchase of an old piece of high-end property that has changed hands many times, mergers and acquisitions, or shareholders’ and directors’ disputes.
For now, I will set aside the issue of DIY law affecting lawyers’ incomes and potentially costing the wealthy ones a holiday trip or two to Spain, or some other European country.
The focus of this article is simply on how lawyers should demystify the law and not charge an arm and a leg for services that aren’t actually that complicated.
In the uproar over Bon’s idea, lawyers acted as if they were the sole guardians of some esoteric, recondite knowledge that the general public could not possibly comprehend.
But if ordinary people don’t know how to deal with land offices and banks in buying property, can they be taught through a step-by-step guide?
If women don’t know their rights in getting a divorce, can they learn through women’s rights groups? Sisters in Islam, for example, fights for women’s rights in Muslim family law.
If the MyConstitution campaign can come up with pocket-sized booklets and run workshops to educate Malaysians on the Federal Constitution, why can’t lawyers do something similar with S&P agreements, wills, divorce petitions, bail and mitigation and the like?
It is disingenuous to say that ordinary people like real estate agents cannot manage S&P agreements on their own without lawyers. A paralegal told me that she handles all the S&P agreements in her office and goes to the lawyers only for their signatures. She learned it in just a few months.
By keeping the law a labyrinthine mystery as incomprehensible as Latin, lawyers are acting no better than the Roman Catholic Church that opposed English theologian John Wycliffe, who was the first to translate the bible from Latin to English during the 14th century. Wycliffe was considered a reformer who paved the way for the Protestant Reformation that came two centuries later.
Wycliffe was trying to make the holy scriptures accessible to lay people.
But the church banned and burned his translations, saying: “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine”, as quoted by the Christianity Today website.
The church authorities wanted to retain the power to interpret the holy books, which would allow them to lay claim as the sole authorised source of God’s voice.
If the laity could start reading the scriptures on their own and determine the veracity of claims on who or what God is, how humans came about or how the Earth was formed, it would break the clergy’s monopoly on truth.
Likewise, if lawyers truly want to fight for justice, they should not be afraid of empowering ordinary people with knowledge.
It might mean less work for them, but it doesn’t mean that people don’t need lawyers for the really complicated matters.
Despite the bible being available in English and hundreds of other languages, churches still have priests. So, lawyers should not fear becoming obsolete.
They’ll still be around, just like priests.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.