The Malaysian government should reject a proposal made during parliamentary debates that the attorney general head the independent Bar Council, Human Rights Watch has said.
Such an action would give the government effective control over an institution that has long been an outspoken defender of human rights and the rule of law and would threaten the independence of the country’s legal profession.
“The parliamentary proposal to turn the bar’s leadership over to the attorney general would silence Malaysia’s legal profession, which has been at the forefront of defending human rights and the rule of law in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The bar needs to be free to choose its own leaders and act without government interference.”
During a 6 April 2016 debate in the Malaysian Parliament, a member of parliament from the ruling coalition criticised the Bar Council, the bar’s ruling body, for demanding greater government accountability and proposed that the attorney general be automatically appointed as head of the Bar Council.
In response, Nancy Shukri, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, said that the government would look into this proposal, noting that adoption of the measure would require amending the Legal Profession Act 1976.
Placing the bar under effective government control would be contrary to international standards promoting the independence of lawyers, Human Rights Watch said. As the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed in 2015, 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.”
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers require governments to ensure that lawyers can perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference. They further provide that “lawyers shall be entitled to form and join self-governing professional associations” and that “the executive body of such associations should be elected by its members and exercise its functions without external interference.”
The Malaysian Bar, created by statute in 1947, is an independent bar association whose aim is “to uphold the rule of law and the cause of justice and protect the interest of the legal profession as well as that of the public”. It is managed by a 38-member Bar Council, elected annually from among its members.
Consistent with its stated purpose, the Malaysian Bar has been an outspoken voice in Malaysia on issues related to human rights and the rule of law for several decades.
Over the past year, as the Malaysian government has engaged in a relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, the Bar has repeatedly spoken out to criticise the government’s abuse of laws such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, and the Peaceful Assembly Act. It has also raised concerns about abusive police practices and detention without trial and has pressed for greater government accountability.
“The Malaysian Bar shouldn’t be vilified for its effective and principled support of human rights, accountability, and the rule of law,” Robertson said. “Any efforts to undermine the Bar’s independence should be flatly rejected.”