October 01, 2016

ABA president expresses concerns about proposals that could undermine independence of Malaysian Bar

ABA President Linda A. Klein expressed concerns last month that a number of proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act of 1976 (LPA), the Malaysian law governing the Malaysian Bar, appear to be inconsistent with international legal principles and could severely undermine the independence of the Malaysian legal profession.

In a Sept. 23 letter to Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, Klein emphasized that the Malaysian Bar Council has existed for over 70 years as an  independent legal association governed by the LPA with the aim “to uphold the cause of justice without regard to its own interest or that of its members, uninfluenced by fear or favour.” The proposed amendments, she said, “would lead to drastic changes in the leadership of the Malaysian Bar, the election process of its leaders, and the organization of its annual meetings.”

One of the proposals would allow the Malaysian government to appoint two members to represent the government on the Bar Council, the executive body of the Malaysian Bar. Klein explained that the United Nations “Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers” state that the executive body of a professional association should be elected by its members and shall exercise its functions without external interference. She said that the government is free at any time to express its views to the Malaysian Bar, and the proposed change would create “an unjustified infringement upon the right of association of members of the legal profession that is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution, international law, and required by the U.N. Basic Principles.”

The proposed amendments also would allow the minister in charge of legal affairs in Malaysia to determine the electoral rules and regulations of the Malaysian Bar, a step that could be seen as exerting improper influence over the independent bar.

Also included in the proposed changes in the elections and governing processes is an increase in the quorum from 500 members for general meetings to approximately 4,000 members, or 25 percent of the membership. “Such a change,” Klein said,” would effectively prohibit the Malaysian Bar from having general meetings where resolutions and policies can be debated and passed.”

“The independence of the legal profession – and the bodies that represent the legal profession – is essential to ensuring the rule of law, access to justice and respect for human rights,” Klein said. 

She urged the prime minister to reconsider introducing the amendments to Parliament and to open discussion of any need to amend the LPA to the Malaysian Bar, incorporate their comments and requests, and redraft the amendments “to protect and ensure the independence of the Malaysian Bar and the legal profession as a whole.”

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