Myanmar: lawyers still face restrictions despite increased independence

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Lawyers continue to encounter impediments to the exercise of their professional functions and freedom of association, as well as pervasive corruption, although they have been able to act with greater independence, says the ICJ in a new report launched today.

Right to Counsel: The Independence of Lawyers in Myanmar – based on interviews with 60 lawyers in practice in the country – says authorities have significantly decreased their obstruction of, and interference in, legal processes since the country began political reforms in 2011.

“The progress made in terms of freedom of expression and respect for the legal process is very visible,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia-Pacific director. “But despite the improvements, lawyers still face heavy restrictions and attacks on their independence, which can result in uncertainty and fear, particularly when it comes to politically sensitive issues.”

Systemic corruption continues to affect every aspect of a lawyer’s career and, as a result, is never absent from lawyers’ calculations vis-à-vis legal fees, jurisdictions and overall strategy.

“Corruption is so embedded in the legal system that it is taken for granted,” Zarifi said. “When the public also generally assumes that corruption undermines the legal system, this severely weakens the notion of rule of law.”

“Lawyers in Myanmar, as elsewhere, play an indispensable role in the fair and effective administration of justice,” Zarifi added. “This is essential for the protection of human rights in the country and the establishment of an enabling environment for international cooperation towards investment and development.”

But lawyers in Myanmar lack an independent Bar Council, the report says, noting that the Myanmar Bar Council remains a government-controlled body that fails to adequately protect the interests of lawyers in the country and promote their role in the fair and effective administration of justice.

The ICJ report shows that other multiple long-standing and systemic problems affect the independence of lawyers, including the poor state of legal education and improper interferences on the process of licensing of lawyers.

In its report, which presents a snapshot of the independence of lawyers in private practice in Myanmar in light of international standards and in the context of the country’s rapid and on-going transition, the ICJ makes a series of recommendations:

  • The Union Attorney-General and Union Parliament should significantly reform the Bar Council to ensure its independence;
  • The Union Attorney-General and Union Parliament should create a specialized, independent mechanism mandated with the prompt and effective criminal investigation of allegations of corruption;
  • The Ministry of Education should, in consultation with the legal profession, commit to improving legal education in Myanmar by bolstering standards of admission to law school, law school curricula, and instruction and assessment of students.

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