In today’s modern and complex society, where rule of law is expected to be adhered to, lawyers are facing threats and assaults more than ever before. Clients whose best interest they serve are biting back. Others with vested interest in a case threaten lawyers to get their way with things. As agents of justice, lawyers are being compromised. The murder of Datuk SP Annamalai in 2007 and N. Selvamani in 2006 are just two of the many incidents that illustrate this problem.
The Malaysian Bar Council, in response to the matter, is in the midst of setting up a special committee to ensure protection for lawyers against such vile attacks. Selangor Bar chairperson Rajpal Singh had been appointed to see through the setting up of this committee by March 2009. Currently at the preliminary stage, the function of the committee includes holding dialogues and forums with the police and raising awareness amongst lawyers on the issue.
With all due respect, such committee cannot provide “real” protection to lawyers. Lawyers are truly protected in the compound of courts with the presence of policemen. Apart from that, once they are off court limits, they are on their own. That is the underlying point. Policemen cannot be there for you all the time. To expect them to accord the total 12,777 lawyers in Malaysia with extra care and attention would be impractical.
Nevertheless, one way in which the committee can safeguard lawyers better is to establish better links with the police. Set up a complaints bureau within the committee. Threatened lawyers who have lodged a police report can forward such report and complaint to the bureau for following up purposes. The objective here is for the committee to act as a ‘check and balance’ task force to ensure prompt action is taken by the police on the reports made. This must be distinguished from the viewpoint of giving lawyers preferential treatment. It is not. Every citizen has a right to have the police protect him or her. In this case, the committee ensures that such protection, in the form of investigation and so forth, is given to its members upon making the police report. A case in point, the death of a murdered Israeli lawyer, David Haham on June 2008 could have been prevented if the police took his complaints of imminent threats seriously, rather than ignoring it totally. This is where the committee can step in to prevent such ‘ignorance’.
Lawyers themselves must also realise that they can contribute to their own predicament. Unethical and unprofessional conduct, giving empty promises, charging unreasonable fees, lack of communication skills (to the extent of provoking the client) and so forth can lead to unnecessary problems. The committee can play a role by ensuring Bar members adhere strictly to their professional conduct. Forums, seminar, dialogues and continuous education on legal ethics organized by the committee can play a major role to raise awareness and alertness amongst lawyers. The disciplinary board of the Bar can also liaise with the committee for such purposes.
Further, workshops can be organized by the committee to equip lawyers with know-how in dealing with dangerous situations. Simulations can be used to prepare lawyers for real life situations. Security systems in legal firms and safety measurements and guidelines can also be promoted via these workshops. Organizing self defence classes is also an alternative which the committee can ponder upon.
The setting up of a special committee to protect lawyers is not new. In Canada, the Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) promotes the implementation and enforcement of designed international standards to protect the independence and security of human rights lawyers around the world. They campaign for lawyers whose rights, freedoms or independence are threatened as a result of their human rights advocacy. LRWC is also an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. However, this committee is specifically on human rights lawyers per se, whilst the Bar Council’s proposed committee goes across the board. Nevertheless, the LRWC can provide a template and reference point to smooth out teething problems in the establishment of the committee.
The idea of setting up a special committee is apt and timely. The problem faced by Malaysia is still relatively small compared to countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh where the legal profession faces possible extinction due to lack of regard for the rule of law. Lawyers are scorned upon and assassinated since the 1980s for various reasons.
Let us hope that such tragedy shall never reach our shores.