Lawyers must tackle stereotypes about the profession head on – and Malaysia’s lawyers show how.
Lawyers are apparently self-serving, grasping, callous, underhanded and indifferent to justice.
‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,’ stated Dick the butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part II.
‘Of course, few who cite the quotation acknowledge that, in its proper context, is to portray Jack Cade and his followers as truly terrifying, showing that the first casualty of such riots is the rule of law,’ Lord Neuberger said at the launch of a new report on virtue and ethics in the law.
Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, called on the profession to tackle such stereotypes ‘head on’.
Twelve hours later, Christopher Leong, president of the Malaysian Bar, managed to do just that. And it took him less than an hour.
Leong, on a three-day visit to London, was speaking about the work of the Malaysian Bar.
Detailing key moments of the bar’s 67-year history, Leong spoke of the legal aid scheme set up in 1978 in the northern state of Penang by a group of lawyers, which was housed in a shack they shared with a coffee shop by the side of the road.
A couple of years later the group bought a van ‘and then we had mobile legal aid’.
‘By the early 1980s, we had a nationwide network of legal aid, fully funded by the members of the Malaysian Bar, and fully manned by members of the Malaysian Bar, all on a voluntary basis,’ Leong recalls.
Since 1978 up until two years ago, the bar represented, for free, around 25,000 impecunious people caught up in the criminal justice system.
Following years of pushing for the government to take responsibility for legal aid, the National Legal Aid Foundation was launched in 2011.
Leong recalls, during talks beforehand, the prime minister being astounded to learn that an estimated 80% of people who were tried in court for criminal offences did not have legal representation. ‘And because these people go unrepresented, it is fertile ground for abuse,’ Leong says.
‘We get reports on a daily basis in Malaysia of detention abuse – people being tortured, physically hammered. When they’re detained by the authorities they’re given one phone call. But the thing is, they have no one to call. If they call a friend or family, they do not know what to do. They get to the police station and they’re not given access to the person detained.’
Since the foundation, which receives government funding and which adopted the legal aid structure of the Malaysian Bar, properly kicked off in April 2012, ‘we have provided free legal assistance to 250,000 people. That’s a huge jump from when we used to be able to represent only 25,000 a year,’ says Leong.
That’s not all. ‘[The foundation] has made a huge difference in terms of the rule of law. It acted as an impediment to police abuse. Why? Because, as part of the scheme, we managed to get the attorney general to agree to speak to the Royal Malaysian Police that, for every person who is arrested and detained at a police station, they will, on a daily basis, fax the name and particulars of the detained person to the National Legal Aid Foundation and we will immediately dispatch a lawyer to the police station.’
Leong spoke much more about the bar’s work, including its efforts to abolish the Sedition Act, which has been used in Malaysia this year to investigate, charge and prosecute more than 20 people, including lawyers and law professors, for expressing dissenting views.
His words had a profound impact on those listening to him. If only those people who quote that infamous line in Shakespeare to mock the legal profession were in the room, too.