The Malaysian government should reject a proposal to make the attorney general automatically the chair of the Bar Council of Malaysia, the International Commission of Jurists has said.
The Malaysian Bar must remain independent and the government should not entertain this or any other measure that would compromise this independence, the ICJ said in a statement released on 7 April 2016.
During the debate session at the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House of the Malaysian Parliament) on 6 April, parliamentarian Datu Nasrun Datu Mansur suggested that the attorney heneral should be automatically appointed as the chairman of the Bar Council of Malaysia.
Datu Nasrun Datu Mansur made the suggestion while criticising the Bar Council for its role in demanding greater government accountability.
“This latest proposal is just the most recent attempt by the government to silence all opposition and to weaken the rule of law,” said Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s senior legal adviser for South East Asia.
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“First the government weakened the independence of the judiciary, and now it is going after the lawyers who are standing up for justice and accountability,” she added.
Responding to the suggestion, Law Minister Nancy Shukri said that the government would look into it, noting that amendments need to be made to the Legal Profession Act 1976 for this measure to be adopted.
“International standards on the independence of lawyers state very clearly that governments should not interfere with the work of professional associations of lawyers like the Malaysia Bar,” said Gil.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers stipulate that lawyers have the right “to form and join self-governing professional associations to represent their interests, promote their continuing education and training, and protect their professional integrity,” the ICJ noted.
Furthermore, the basic principles distinctly state that “the executive body of the professional associations shall be elected by its members and shall exercise its functions without external interference”.
“An independent and self-regulated bar association is important to safeguard the professional interests and integrity of lawyers in Malaysia,” Gil said.
“It acquires specific importance especially now in Malaysia where there have been questions regarding the way justice is being administered in the country,” she added.
The Malaysia Bar is an essential agent in the administration of justice and hence, the lawyers belonging to it play a key role in supporting and calling for law and justice sector reform in the country, the ICJ further said.
The Malaysia Bar passed a motion last month during its 70th Annual General Assembly calling for the resignation of Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali because he summarily ended the investigation of alleged corruption by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The prime minister appointed Attorney General Apandi on 27 July 2015 in the midst of the corruption investigation.
Apandi subsequently cleared Najib of any criminal wrongdoing and instructed the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to close the investigations.
According to the ICJ, the motion passed by the Malaysia Bar calling for the resignation of the attorney general was within its mandate as an independent professional association of lawyers, seeking as it did to draw attention to how administration of justice is being jeopardised right now.
The UN Basic Principles specifically recognise the right of lawyers to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.
The UN Human Rights Council has unanimously affirmed that “an independent legal profession” is among the “essential prerequisites for the protection of human rights, the rule of law, good governance and democracy, and for ensuring that there is no discrimination in the administration of justice”. Such independence should be respected in all circumstances.