‘Bar needs public support to defend civil liberty’

Former UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Param Cumaraswamy says Bar and judiciary are the two main pillars to protect civil liberty.

PETALING JAYA: Former United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Param Cumaraswamy has highlighted the importance of public support to ensure an independent Bar to protect civil liberty.

He said a robust and sound administration of justice was dependent on the cooperation of an independent judiciary, public prosecutor’s office and independent legal profession.

“But the Bar and the judiciary are the two main pillars to guard civil liberty,” he said in an interview with FMT.

Param said even when the Malaysian judiciary was under threat in 1988 after then-lord president Salleh Abas and five Federal Court judges were suspended for alleged judicial misconduct, the Bar was at the forefront to protect the institution.

“Public support, including from the press and civil society, is very important as the Bar is also the real watchdog to protect an independent judiciary.”

He said in 2007, Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was suspended from office and placed under house arrest for allegedly running a “parallel government” from his office.

“However, he was reinstated after the public joined lawyers in a mass rally in protest of the government’s move,” said Param, who was UN special rapporteur for nine years from 1994.

Param was responding to Bar president George Varughese’s speech at its annual dinner on March 17 where he said Putrajaya had again proposed sweeping amendments to the Legal Profession Act with grave implications for the independence of the Bar.

FMT understands that among the proposals about which the Bar was concerned were the move to allow the attorney-general to appoint 10 representatives from interest groups to the Bar Council, the conduct of the election to pick office bearers and the enlargement of the quorum requirement for its annual general meeting.

On another matter, Param said the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) established in 2009 to recommend appointments and promotions of judges must be seen as independent.

“However, it will not be perceived as independent if the prime minister is seen as not accepting the JAC’s recommendations,” he added.

Param, who was named as this year’s recipient of the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award, said JAC’s recommendations should be final, otherwise it would defeat the purpose of setting up the commission.

Param said it was not wrong for the executive to intervene in the appointment and promotion process, but it should not have the final say.

“The executive could be part of JAC but its proposal must go straight to the Conference of Rulers,” he said, adding that such a move might require an amendment to the Federal Constitution.

Currently, JAC, which consists of five Federal Court judges and four eminent persons, only recommends candidates to the prime minister.

Article 122B (1) states that judges and the four office holders in the judiciary are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, acting on the advice of the prime minister after consultation with the Conference of Rulers.

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