12 June 2012 at 12:46 BST

Malaysia creeps towards legal profession reforms

Malaysia's Legal Profession Bill has been tabled before parliament for a second reading, taking the country a step closer to a more liberalised regime that will allow foreign firms a foothold in the local market.

Malaysia: braced for foriegn law firm influx

But a row continues to simmer between the country’s legal profession authorities and national politicians. MPs have questioned the credibility of the Malaysian Bar Council, voicing concerns over a proposal in the bill to give the ruling body power to issue licences to international practices.
The bill states that no foreign law firm can practise in Malaysia unless it is licensed, but it allows firms to practise via international partnerships. It also allows local practices to employ foreign lawyers under certain conditions.

Investment flow

According to The Star Online, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Liew Vui Keong, said the government decided to liberalise Malaysia’s legal sector in November 2008 as part of a bid to strengthen trade and investment flow into the country. ‘For the purpose of liberalisation, foreign law firms and lawyers will only be allowed to practise in peninsular Malaysia and will be governed by the Legal Profession Act,’ he said.
The Bill has gained cross-party support, with one MP, Khairy Jamaluddin, stating: ‘Liberalising the legal profession is a step towards the right direction with the government taking efforts to be more open in the economic, trade and investment sectors.’ Another MP, R Sivarasa said: ‘We see this as a move to boost the professionalism of players in the legal sector. This also has close links to the freedom of the judiciary.’

Conflicts of interest

However, according to Malaysian news agency Bernama some politicians maintain that the proposal to give the Bar Council power to issue licences is inappropriate as conflicts of interest would arise. Only last month, the council was heavily criticised for its role in rushing an extraordinary general meeting where it condemned police for alleged brutality at a rally. One leading minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, stated the council had 'damaged its credibility and integrity' (see What’s New, 14 May).
Meanwhile, The Sun Daily reports that Mr Liew has moved to defend the creation of a Law Academy, stating that it is not aimed to compete with the bar council but to complement the development of the legal system.
‘The establishment and functions of the Bar Council are according to the Legal Profession Act 1976 and the government does not intend to abolish or amend any of its provisions. The Bar Council can still function as it is now,’ said Mr Liew.


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