A dangerous precedent was set by the High Court today when it barred lawyer N. Surendran (pic) from representing Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on the grounds of conflict of interest as both are from the same political party, said lawyers and a retired judge.
They said the judge who made the ruling was not made aware of the provision in the Etiquette Rules under the Legal Profession Act when she stopped Surendran from appearing for Anwar in a defamation suit.
The rules, they said, were only to prevent a family member from appearing in cases where the lawyer was in conflict of interest and stood to gain from the outcome of a civil action.
They were referring to the decision by Judge Rosilah Yop today who allowed the application by Utusan Melayu Berhad to stop Surendran from representing Anwar in his defamation suit against Bahasa Malaysia daily Utusan Malaysia.
Surendran is PKR vice-president, while Anwar is the de facto leader of the party.
Rosilah said Surendran would not be able to maintain professional independence due to conflict of interest as required under rule 5 of the Etiquette Rules.
Anwar will file an urgent appeal to the Court of Appeal to overturn the High Court decision.
Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said the ruling, based on conflict of interest between Surendran and Anwar, was vague and tenuous.
"A conflict of interest would arise if Surendran as lawyer for Anwar was required to testify in the case, but this is not so," he said.
He said this ruling had serious repercussions as many lawyers who were politicians would now be technically barred.
Paulsen said lawyers like R. Sivarasa and Lateefa Koya who are PKR members cannot appear for party leaders like Anwar, Tian Chua, Rafizi Ramli, and Nurul Izzah Anwar in their court cases.
Paulsen said Rozilah's decision could be contrasted with the benign interpretation given by the Federal Court when it refused to disqualify Umno lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah as ad-hoc deputy public prosecutor in the government’s application to overturn Anwar's sodomy acquittal.
Paulsen said in that case, Shafee was shown to be listed as a witness in the sodomy trial and he was a well-known Umno lawyer who had acted for several party personalities against Anwar in defamation cases.
"Contrasting the two cases on the issue of conflict of interest is mind-boggling," he added.
Lawyer Karpal Singh, who held key positions in the DAP and had appeared for party stalwarts in civil and criminal cases numerous times over the past 40 years, described the ruling as "baseless and frivolous".
Karpal said no lawyers from the opposing side nor their clients had made applications to disqualify him when he represented DAP top leaders in court.
He said it was the duty of lawyers to defend their clients' interest and this meant advancing their best in a court of law.
"The decision must be set aside or else the magistrate and sessions courts are duty bound to follow the principle established," he said.
Karpal said his reading of the High Court ruling meant that now lawyers in politics could not represent a fellow political party member in a legal dispute.
A retired judge said Rozilah's decision was plainly wrong as the purpose of the Etiquette Rules was designed to prevent family members from appearing for each other.
"There must be such a connection so close that the independent and professional judgement of the counsel may be impaired," said the judge, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said being a vice-president of a political party was not such a close connection to the de facto head of the party.
He pointed out that lawyer Tun Zaki Azmi, who later became chief justice, used to appear in cases for Umno when he was member of the party's disciplinary committee.
He also noted that the late Robert Chelliah was a close friend of then Selangor Menteri Datuk Harun Idris and represented the politician in his corruption case.
"No one found that objectionable," he added. – April 8, 2014.