Independence of the Malaysian Bar under serious threat from proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act
1 June 2016
Lawyers for Liberty views with extreme concern the government’s wide ranging proposal to amend the Legal Profession Act 1976 as a serious threat to the independence of the Malaysian Bar. The proposed amendments reportedly are now scheduled to be tabled in the Dewan Rakyat during the next Parliamentary session from 17 October to 24 November 2016.
It is well known the Malaysian Bar has always spoken up on issues of grave importance to the nation, especially on issues that affect the rule of law and the administration of justice. In doing so, the Malaysian Bar often clashes with the government, for example on the 1MDB scandal and the appointment of Apandi Ali as Attorney-General.
As the Malaysian Bar has made clear, it has not sought for these amendments. Therefore, the amendments can only be interpreted as government retaliation, a blatant attempt to interfere with the self-regulation and internal management of the Malaysian Bar that has consistently stood up to the government.
Of utmost concern is the proposal to appoint two members of the Bar by the Minister in charge of legal affairs — as members of the Bar Council, for the purpose of representing the government. There are also proposals to amend the election process of the Bar Council and its Office Bearers, with the Minister in charge of legal affairs empowered to make rules and regulations in respect of the conduct of the elections.
These amendments are shocking and unacceptable to say the least, as they clearly amount to direct government interference with the self-regulation and internal management of the Malaysian Bar. How would the Malaysian Bar be able to trust these government appointees as they would essentially be the government’s agents in the Bar Council, free to interfere and report on all Bar Council affairs?
As the Malaysian Bar was neither consulted nor requested to change its election process, the unilateral action by the government to interfere with the election process and in particular, to empower the Minister in charge of legal affairs to make rules and regulations, surely must raise alarm bells on their impropriety and dubious motives.
The government has a duty to ensure that international standards such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (1990) are complied with, in particular Article 24 that clearly stated that “the executive body of the professional associations shall be elected by its members and shall exercise its functions without external interference.”
If the Minister in charge of legal affairs is so keen to be part of the internal management of the Malaysian Bar, she should consider resigning her ministerial post and contest in the Bar Council election. If elected, she can then affect change in the Malaysian Bar from within as a Bar Council member rather than unfairly forcing through these unsought for changes via legislation.
Further, the quorum requirement for general meetings of the Malaysian Bar would be increased from 500 members to 25% of the membership of the Malaysian Bar or about 4,000 members (out of 17,000 members). The quorum requirement for general meetings of each State Bar would also be increased, from 5% to 25% of its membership.
Such excessive requirement for quorum is extraordinary as no other professional body comes close to having such an onerous quorum. The highest quorum requirement for other professionals is accountants for the Malaysian Institute of Accountants’ AGM where a quorum of only 100 persons (out of more than 32,000 members) is prescribed.
This amendment is clearly designed to frustrate meetings and impose additional cost and burden on the Malaysian Bar when meetings are cancelled for failure to acquire quorum.
The proposed amendments are a serious attack on the independence of the Malaysian Bar and have enormous ramifications on the right of lawyers to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour and other professional duties. The public will be adversely affected if the Malaysian Bar under interference is unable to take on controversial issues that are at odds with the government.
We call on the government to drop the proposed amendments forthwith.
Lawyers for Liberty