Lawyers in Sabah may soon be more regulated under a new statutory body to regulate the state legal fraternity, including disciplinary action against rogue practitioners.
In a Bill that is being debated in Parliament today, proposed amendments to the Sabah Advocates Ordinance will pave the way for the formation of a statutory body to better regulate the legal profession in Sabah the way the Malaysian Bar acts for lawyers in the peninsula.
Sabah Law Association (SLA) president Brendon Soh, who has been the driving force behind the proposal, said the amendments would grant the body power to regulate the practice with more provisions.
“The proposed Advocates (Sabah) (Amendment) Act 2016, if passed, will change the legal landscape for Sabah dramatically,” he told Malay Mail Online. “It’s been up to 20 years in the making although it really gained the most traction in the last four years.”
About 80 per cent of lawyers in Sabah are registered with the SLA but the association has no governing powers and processes have to go through the courts for most affairs, including the issuance of practising certificates, and disciplinary complaints.
With the amendments, the SLA will be formally known as the Sabah Law Society (SLS), and the Sabah Advocates Ordinance will be increased to 76 sections from the present 17.
“One of the major differences is that it will be mandatory for all lawyers in Sabah to be registered with the body to have a practising licence, which means they will be subject to the laws under the ordinance,” said Soh.
The SLS will be a full-fledged professional body governing the legal profession in Sabah equipped with powers to regulate their own affairs, including disciplinary action against members of the bar in Sabah.
The Malaysian Bar only governs lawyers in Peninsular Malaysia and does not have jurisdiction over Sabah and Sarawak.
“In the past, there has not been support for more than one statutory body in the country,” said Soh. “Although the subject was raised several times, it never gained much traction. Passing this Bill now will mean autonomy for Sabah’s legal industry, timely when the state has been pushing for more devolution of powers.”
Details are not finalised, but the body will operate similar to the way the Bar Council does in West Malaysia. Lawyers will pay annual subscriptions, part of which will go towards a disciplinary fund.
“Another portion will go towards a compensation fund,” said Soh. “In the event a member of the public is wronged by a lawyer, the SLS can use the fund to relieve or mitigate the loss, although it may not be full compensation.”.
The disciplinary process will be more efficient. It will cut out the present nine-member inquiry committee appointed by the chief judge of Sabah and Sarawak to investigate and decide on public complaints.
“The two-stage process is long and difficult to be dealt with expeditiously,” said Soh. “It can take years to come to a conclusion whether to strike out or suspend (a lawyer over) ethical or behavioural disputes.
“With the new body, a committee can deal with the issue directly and this will indirectly benefit the public who can be reassured by tighter regulations.”
There are also provisions to benefit clients and lawyers. The proposed body will be allowed to operate the accounts of a bankrupt or deceased lawyer for the benefit of clients.
It will allow the practice of foreign law, and solidify the stand to allow only residents of Sabah and those with connections to practice in the state.
The draft Bill needs to go through Parliament since the State Advocates Ordinance is listed under federal jurisdiction.
“If passed at Parliament, the law can be expected to come into force by 2017,” said Soh.