The Malaysian Bar has urged the government to allow the partial reopening of all law firms nationwide during the ongoing total lockdown to safeguard the people’s right to proper legal representation.
In a circular dated June 14 and e-mailed to lawyers, the Bar revealed that it had made the proposal to the National Security Council (NSC) and the Legal Affairs Division of the Prime Minister’s Department.
On June 2, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Parliament and Law) Takiyuddin Hassan said that only law firms involved in corporate legal services and conveyancing for the essential services sector could apply for permission to operate during the total lockdown together with the companies, factories or essential services-related businesses they represented.
During the total lockdown that is part of a movement control order (MCO 3.0), legal firms are generally not considered as part of essential services and are to remain closed as part of wide-ranging measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.
These include law firms that specialise in criminal cases.
Takiyuddin also said that only lawyers representing clients who are facing new charges, remand order applications and criminal case applications were allowed to appear in court during the total lockdown period.
Earlier on June 1, Malaysiakini reported lawyers raising concerns that the general closure of law firms nationwide during the total lockdown period may jeopardise detainees’ ability to obtain proper legal representation.
According to the circular sighted by Malaysiakini, the Malaysian Bar raised the standard operating procedures (SOP) proposal with NSC and the Legal Affairs Division following feedback from lawyers.
Among the proposals were for all law firms to operate with working hours limited to half a day and to allow a maximum workforce capacity of 50 percent in office at any one time.
The Bar also proposed that employees be allowed to travel to their law firm premises by relying on authorisation letters issued by the firms themselves without the need for an approval letter from the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti).
“Additionally, it was also highlighted to the NSC and Legal Affairs Division that the closure of the law firms may prejudice clients’ rights given that certain government departments and agencies are still operating and dealing with law firms in legal matters that are ongoing.
“We have been informed by the division that the formulation of the SOPs is a matter of national policy that requires the collective decision of the relevant authorities/ministries, especially the NSC,” the Bar said.
When contacted by Malaysiakini, several lawyers confirmed having received the Bar’s circular.
Among them was Syed Iskandar Syed Jaafar al-Mahdzar who expressed support for the Bar’s proposal to the government.
He added that the government also should consider allowing similar limited reopenings of commissioners of oaths who are needed for affirmation of affidavits in court cases.
Another lawyer, Muhammad Farhan Muhammad Shafee, proposed that in the event that the government was not fully amenable to the Bar’s proposal, the present administration could alternatively instead allow lawyers to individually travel to law firms to access much-needed statutes and other legal reference material.
He pointed out that despite legal statutes and acts generally available online, the same cannot be said of legal reference books authored by law experts that assist lawyers in preparing for their court cases.