Cronyism in the legal profession is set to be weakened, if not removed, with the National Assembly scheduled to act on a bill to restrict the practice of law by judge- and prosecutor-turned lawyers this month. Given a bipartisan accord, its passage is almost assured.
If the bill is approved, lawyers will be banned for one year from serving as counsel on cases tried or investigated by the court or the prosecutors’ office in which they had served for one year or longer immediately before hanging out their shingles.
This prohibition is no small achievement, given the close personal ties judge- and prosecutor-turned lawyers maintain with their former colleagues and their influence upon the administration of justice. Public suspicion about the way justice is served is vindicated by findings that lawyers have higher winning rates on cases tried or investigated by their former colleagues.
It is necessary to keep criminal investigations, and trials both civil and criminal, from being influenced by cronyism, although the suitable length of a ban is debatable. But the ban prescribed in the bill is only a small part of the judicial reform, whose promotion has hit a snag.
To the chagrin of those advocating sweeping judicial reform, the relevant ad hoc committee has decided to deal with other key points when the National Assembly is called into session again in June. No advocate could be blamed if he wondered aloud if the proposed reform will ever be written into law in the face of strong opposition from disaffected powerful stakeholders, prosecutors in particular.
One of the core reform proposals is to strip the Central Investigation Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office of the power to look into politically sensitive cases ― including those involving lawmakers, others elected or appointed to top public posts and leading businessmen. Members of the ad hoc committee who have agreed to defang the department differ on who should assume the investigative power once it is relinquished.
A subcommittee has recommended that a semiautonomous agency for high-powered criminal investigations be established under the justice minister. But the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office is voicing strong opposition to depriving its Central Investigation Department of the investigative power, not to mention the creation of a new investigation agency. It finds a sympathetic ear among prosecutor-turned lawmakers, who have successfully delayed action on the proposal for a semiautonomous agency until June.
The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, which insiders say is content with the breathing space, is apparently renewing its resolve to derail the reform process. It may succeed in keeping its power intact as it did in 2004. Still, the demand for reform in prosecution will die hard because the public harbors deep suspicions about what it has done in the past.
Not many appear to believe that prosecutors are unbiased in administering justice. In the eyes of the public, they are anything but politically neutral. Moreover, they have rarely shown enthusiasm when it comes to investigating cases involving judges or prosecutors.
The general public regards prosecutors as impotent in dealing with cases involving any of the powers that be and merciless in launching prosecution processes against anyone from the opposition. It also suspects them of pointing their daggers at the throats of people close to the president when he slid into lame-duck status.
There are few better answers to such deep-rooted public suspicion than a semiautonomous investigation agency. The idea of banning its head from taking a public post for a certain period of time after retiring from the agency has been put forward as a means of shielding him from the influence of the president and other powerful figures ― a proposal that merits serious consideration.