The election of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is around the corner and there are two contenders for the post of President. BASL is a professional body of lawyers tasked with the responsibility of regulating the legal profession. It is an organization established to promote professional competence, enforce standards of ethical conduct and encourage the spirit of public service among the members of the legal profession.
Prior to the establishment of BASL in 1974, the legal profession was divided into two branches – Advocates and Proctors, while the Bar Council of Sri Lanka represented the Advocates and the Law Society represented Proctors in all matters affecting their respective professions. With the introduction of the Administration of Justice Law 44 of 1973, both branches of the legal profession were amalgamated into one and came to be known as the BASL. Thereafter all the legal practitioners came to be known as Attorneys-at-Law. BASL is now a unified voluntary organization. Association has on its roll- more than 8000 members as individual and life members.
We live in a time when core values of the profession are being threatened. As a result the whole climate of opinion has become hostile towards the legal profession. Public esteem for the legal profession has declined sharply over the last few years. The legal profession has been ranked the lowest among the professions. Some despise and hate it. It commands little respect in the public’s estimation.
There is a minimum standard of behaviour and conduct expected of the lawyers in the practice of their profession. Therefore a sincere effort should be made to examine the problems arising out of the malpractices and irregularities committed by certain members in the profession
Although much has been spoken and written on the deteriorating standards nothing substantial seems to have been done to arrest this trend by the authorities charged with the responsibility of regulating the profession in the country. There have been no genuine efforts to address the problems affecting litigants in many ways by the professional misconduct and malpractices indulged in by few individual members in the profession. Therefore, a great responsibility devolves on whoever is elected as the President of the BASL.
There is a minimum standard of behaviour and conduct expected of the lawyers in the practice of their profession. Therefore a sincere effort should be made to examine the problems arising out of the malpractices and irregularities committed by certain members in the profession. It should be stressed that the public image is bound to suffer as a result of an errant behaviour or conduct of even a single member of the profession.
The BASL cannot afford to have any double standard and ambivalence in confronting problems connected with the legal profession. Those who are entrusted with the task of enforcing discipline among lawyers should display an appropriate degree of firmness in dealing with the offending members of the legal community. Such disciplinary measures should also be done in a manner that deeply cherished values, professional independence and moral integrity is maintained at all times.
One sees an attitude of complacency and a note of resignation in the face of the deteriorating standards of the profession. It is regrettable that there is a surprising and disturbing sense of apathy and inertia on the part of the authorities. This attitude would be an abdication of the trust and responsibility which rests upon the Association. It is up to the Association to promote the noble ideals which have inspired the profession and sustained it throughout history.
Deterioration in the professional standards is often reflected in the quality of legal output and the professional services rendered by the legal community. The decline in competence, efficiency and the standards of the legal profession is also bound to bring about a corresponding decline in the standards on the Bench because it is the BASL, which nurtures and fosters those who aspire to a career in the judiciary.
The BASL has been in the vanguard of the movement for upholding and consolidating values of democracy, rule of law and independence of the judiciary.
Members of the legal profession occupy a position of privilege because of the high nature of its calling. Not only in Sri Lanka but all over the world there is a high proportion of heads of state, ministers and high officials drawn from the ranks of the legal profession. It is said there have been 26 American Presidents who were lawyers. For centuries lawyers have stood at the centre of the society. There were eminent and patriotic lawyers in the past who fought valiantly for the independence of this country. The legal profession has a rich and glorious past and members of the legal fraternity can justifiably be proud of this.
There is another aspect which should be reviewed by the incoming President and the executive members of the BASL. It is said that lawyers who attend to notarial work in addition to their actual practice in court is barred from applying for the position of President’s counsel. I fail to understand why this discrimination against certain members of the profession exists. The BASL represents the entire membership of the legal profession. And they cannot afford to represent only one segment of the profession in matters such as this. And it must be noted that the notarial practice is one of the subjects at the law college for the Attorney’s final. Moreover there are and were a number of eminent President’s Counsel who were initially engaged in notarial work. The President’s Counsel position should not be confined to an exclusive and privileged band of lawyers.