KUALA LUMPUR, June 2 — Disgraced former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has one last chance to appeal against his conviction in the SRC International Sdn Bhd case or he will face a maximum of 12 years’ jail and a RM210 million fine.
For the hearing in August, Najib is now trying to get a United Kingdom-based lawyer, Queen’s Counsel (QC) Jonathan James Laidlaw, to become the lead counsel in his appeal.
But why does Najib need to count on a British lawyer to represent himself in a Malaysian court, and how is this allowed in the country’s legal system?
Malay Mail tries to answer six of the biggest questions about this issue:
What in the Commonwealth is a QC?
According to the Law Society, an independent professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, QCs are from classes of lawyers called barristers or solicitor advocates who have been recognised for their excellence.
QCs are often seen as leaders in their area of law and generally take on more complex cases that require a higher level of legal expertise, with the conferring of a QC status one of the highest honours a solicitor can attain in the higher courts of England and Wales.
QCs are selected by an independent panel of senior lawyers, a retired judge and non-lawyers annually in what is known as a “competition”.
Why does Najib want a QC to represent him?
According to Najib’s legal team from Messrs Shafee & Co and Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Laidlaw is said to “possess special qualifications, experience and expertise which is not available” among lawyers in Malaysia for the case.
One of the reasons for Laidlaw’s application was stated as being that Najib’s SRC appeal at the Federal Court “will involve serious, complex and/or novel issues related to several branches of criminal and civil laws, practice and evidence, the constitutional rights of the appellant, the conduct of proceedings by the prosecution, the adjudication of criminal cases by a trial court and the administration of a Criminal Justice system”.
When was the last time someone tried to use a QC?
In 2006, a local company attempted to engage the services of Cherie Blair QC (known professionally as Cherie Booth) to appear before the Federal Court for an ongoing commercial dispute.
Booth is also the wife of former British prime minister Sir Tony Blair.
Institutional bodies such as the Attorney General’s Chambers, the Malaysian Bar Council and KL Bar Committee subsequently took a united stand to oppose Booth’s application.
While the court acknowledged Booth’s qualification as a distinguished QC specialising in public law, administrative law and commercial law, the court also asked how Booth would be able to assist in the case only later at that juncture as she had not been engaged during the trial stage.
The court also stated that it was untrue that there was no availability of local advocates and solicitors of a quality and type amongst the 12,000 of them in Malaysia who were equally qualified and experienced.
In a unanimous decision, the Federal Court dismissed Booth’s application, stating that Booth had not demonstrated she had special qualifications and experience of a nature not available amongst advocates and solicitors in Malaysia.
How does the law allow the hiring of QC?
Under Section 18(1) of the Legal Profession Act (LPA), the High Court may admit a person — who would have been eligible to be admitted as a lawyer in Malaysia if he was a Malaysian citizen or permanent resident — to practise as a lawyer here, for the purpose of any one case and if certain conditions are fulfilled.
The conditions required to be fulfilled under Section 18(1) are if this person has, in the court’s opinion, special qualifications or experience not available among lawyers in Malaysia for the purpose of that particular case, and also if he has been instructed by a lawyer in Malaysia to act for that case.
However, Section 18(3) of the LPA mandates the court to have regard to the views of “the Attorney-General, the Secretary of the Bar Council and of the State Bar Committee in the state where such cause or matter is to be heard and the other party to the cause or matter.”
This means the application by Laidlaw to represent Najib would not be approved automatically regardless of how good his credentials are, as the petition for admission had to be served to the respective aforementioned parties as well, with the court to make the final determination.
Who is Laidlaw anyway?
Laidlaw was first called to the bar in 1982 at the age of 22, where his 40-year legal career began before he was appointed a QC in 2018.
His areas of practice are stated as mainly business and financial crime, with other areas covering matters such as criminal defence, private prosecutions, health and safety, inquests and inquiries, professional discipline and sports law.
According to the website of his London-based law firm — 2 Hare Court — Laidlaw currently acts for a number of individuals who are the subject of investigations by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office which deals with serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption cases, the UK’s financial services industry regulator Financial Conduct Authority, and the United States Department of Justice.
Where has Laidlaw offered his expertise?
His most recent outing was to represent Boris Becker — a German former world No. 1 tennis player — in his bankruptcy case which began in 2017 over an unpaid loan of more than £3 million (RM16.5 million) on his luxury estate in Mallorca, Spain.
The former Wimbledon champion was found guilty of four charges under the UK Insolvency Act, and has been jailed for two and a half years for hiding £2.5 million worth of assets and loans to avoid paying debts. Laidlaw is set to continue to represent Becker in his forthcoming court hearings.
Prior to this, Laidlaw also represented Rebekah Brooks — who became the youngest-ever editor of a national British paper, the News of the World (now named News UK) in 2000.
Brooks was engulfed in a media storm following allegations of illegal eavesdropping by News of the World journalists when she was editor, which saw her arrested and facing criminal charges stemming from revelations that News Corp tabloids had been illegally intercepting and reporting the private voicemails of British citizens.
Rebekah Brooks was then cleared of all charges against her at a phone-hacking trial.
Laidlaw also represented the English Football Association (FA) in its inquiry into former Chelsea and England football captain John Terry for the latter’s alleged racist remarks.
Terry was placed under police investigation following an allegation of racist abuse made at Queens Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand during a match.
The FA charged Terry for using “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour“ which “included a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Ferdinand”, and was punished with a four-match ban and a £220,000 fine.
Laidlaw also appeared as a Treasury Counsel on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Services, which saw him bring in Britain’s first war crime cases.
He acted as the prosecution in the trial of the Provisional IRA bombing of Canary Wharf, the Official Secrets Act prosecution of Richard Tomlinson and David Shayler, the Jill Dando murder trial and of Delroy Grant — who received four life sentences and is believed responsible for roughly 100 cases of rape, sexual assault and burglary.
He also prosecuted the trial of the Islamist extremist group al-Qaeda cell that planned pre-9/11 attacks in the United States and United Kingdom and the trial of the al-Qaeda attack on Glasgow Airport.
This SRC appeal at the Federal Court will be the last appeal that Najib can pursue since his conviction was at the High Court and his previous appeal at the Court of Appeal was dismissed.
The KL High Court will hear Laidlaw’s petition and aggrieved parties have a final chance of appeal before the Federal Court which should be disposed of by August 15.