Malaysian Bar holds firm to right to speak without being censored

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Never before had the office of the chief justice sought to impose any restrictions in respect of the contents of the speech by the president of the Bar, says George Varughese.

Since the inception of the Opening of the Legal Year ceremonial proceedings in 2010, the president of the Malaysian Bar has always been one of the three individuals called upon to deliver a speech.

He has used the occasion to reflect upon and highlight significant developments in relation to the rule of law and the administration of justice that had taken place over the preceding year and, looking ahead, to speak about the visions and aspirations of the Bar for the new legal year.

The office of the chief justice had indicated to the president of the Bar that, for 2018, the president of the Bar should not in his speech mention the unconstitutional appointments of the chief justice and the president of the Court of Appeal as additional judges and thereafter their continuing to hold the positions of chief justice and as president of the Court of Appeal respectively beyond the age limit of 66 years and six months as prescribed in the Federal Constitution.

The unconstitutional and unprecedented manner in which the appointments were made is of such great significance and consequence that deliberately omitting to address it in a speech that would provide an overview of a whole range of issues relating to the rule of law was not an option.

Although the Bar’s legal challenge in respect of the unconstitutional appointments is pending in the court, it does not preclude the president of the Bar from speaking about the appointments without getting into the merits of the case.

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Never before had the office of the chief justice sought to impose any restrictions in respect of the contents of the speech by the president of the Bar. On this occasion, however, the unprecedented attempt to interfere in the president’s speech was nothing less than an assault on the independence of the Malaysian Bar. This is wholly unacceptable. 

In view of the president of the Bar holding firm to the right to speak openly and refusing to be censored, the format of the Opening of the Legal Year 2018 ceremony was changed to remove the customary speeches by both the president of the Bar and the attorney general.

As a result, the Bar Council — as the governing body of the Malaysian Bar — had, as a matter of principle, no alternative but to respectfully decline the invitation to attend the Opening of the Legal Year 2018 ceremony. At no time was the invitation to the president of the Bar withdrawn. 

The Malaysian Bar hopes that the office of the chief justice will return to the customary ceremonial proceedings for each and every Opening of the Legal Year in future, wherein the roles of the Bar and the Attorney General’s Chambers, as equal partners with the judiciary in the administration of justice, are acknowledged both in principle and in spoken word.

George Varughese is president of the Malaysian Bar.

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