Proposed legislation to regulate the operations and functions of the legal profession in Eswatini does not comply with international and regional standards and would severely undermine the right to an independent lawyer, the ICJ said today.
A Bill that the Government of Eswatini is reportedly seeking to introduce in Parliament would establish a Legal Services Regulatory Authority which would be responsible for issuing practising certificates to lawyers, disciplining lawyers in case of unethical conduct, developing and enforcing performance standards for legal practitioners in Eswatini, the ICJ said.
The proposed Legal Services Regulatory Authority would constitute up to 10 members of which only one would be appointed by the legal bar association (Law Society of Eswatini).
If enacted into law, the bill would severely undermine the independence of lawyers in Eswatini and may set a dangerous precedent for other countries in the SADC region, especially at this time when lawyers in other parts of the region are being persecuted by their governments, the ICJ added.
When discharging their functions, legal practitioners must be independent of control and undue influence in order for them to be able to represent their clients more effectively.
“The Legal Services Regulatory Authority proposed under the Eswatini Bill does not qualify as a self-governing professional body or an independent statutory authority because all but one of its members will be appointed by government,” said ICJ Africa Director Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh.
“The establishment of this regulatory authority is likely to have a chilling effect on the freedom of lawyers to discharge their functions without being afraid of potential retribution through disciplinary proceedings based on frivolous charges,” she added.
The ICJ calls upon the Government of Eswatini to honour its domestic and international legal obligations to respect the independence of lawyers.
In this case, the ICJ urges the government to withdraw this bill and respect the independence of the lawyers to regulate themselves.
Eswatini has an obligation, in terms of its domestic constitution as well as regional and international law and standards, to respect and protect the independence of lawyers. Section 21 of the Constitution of Eswatini and regional and international human rights treaties and standards guarantee for every person the right to a fair hearing and the right to legal representation. These rights cannot be enjoyed effectively, unless lawyers are guaranteed the freedom to represent their clients and perform all their other duties without harassment, intimidation and undue interference.
The right of everyone to access to a lawyer as an essential element of a fair trial is recognized in, among other sources, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Eswatini has been a party since 2004. International and regional standards on ensuring the independence of lawyers are set out in the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (UN Basic Principles) and the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa.
Principle 16 of the United Nations Basic Principles, for instance, enjoins all governments to “ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference”.
Principle 24 affirms that, “Lawyers shall be entitled to form and join self-governing professional associations to represent their interests, promote their continuing education and training and protect their professional integrity. The executive body of the professional associations shall be elected by its members and shall exercise its functions without external interference.”
Principle 28 states that “Disciplinary proceedings against lawyers shall be brought before an impartial disciplinary committee established by the legal profession, before an independent statutory authority, or before a court, and shall be subject to an independent judicial review.”
In a recent unanimous resolution, the UN Human Rights Council recognized that “an independent legal profession” is among the “prerequisites for the protection of human rights and the application of the rule of law and for ensuring fair trials and the administration of justice without any discrimination”.
The Human Rights Council specifically expressed its concern “about situations where the entry into or continued practice within the legal profession is controlled or arbitrarily interfered with by the executive branch, with particular regard to abuse of systems for the licensing of lawyers.” It recommended that any domestic legislation should “provide for independent and self-governing professional associations of lawyers” and should “recognize the vital role played by lawyers in upholding the rule of law and promoting and protecting human rights”.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Director of ICJ’s Africa Regional Programme, c: +27845148039, e: Kaajal kaajal.keogh(a)icj.org