A prudent step | Daily News


A prudent step

The decision taken by President Maithripala Sirisena to, henceforth, appoint President's Counsel only after consulting all stakeholders in the legal profession would be welcomed by all those in the legal fraternity and also the public in general. According to a news item, the Secretary to the President had informed the Supreme Court that in future the President will appoint President's Counsel only with prior advice of informed persons in the legal profession. This was brought to the notice of the Court by the Solicitor General appearing for the State in a fundamental rights petition challenging the criteria adopted in the appointment of PCs.

Earlier, the President of the Bar Association too had written to the President in this regard. He wanted the BASL too consulted when such appointments were made. It is no exaggeration to say that, hitherto, appointments of personnel to this exalted position was a scandal. Among the appointees were briefless lawyers and those politically linked to the ruling party. There were also President's Counsel whose only claim to the title was being in the company of Government politicians in the courthouses for various cases. This was akin to the appointment of some of our non-career diplomats where political loyalties took precedence. Except that in this instance what is at stake is the honour and dignity of the legal profession which, no doubt, is being brought into ridicule. Both main parties stand accused in this respect.

A President’s Counsel is the current equivalent of Queen’s Counsel of the past. When one considers the stature and eminence of the persons who adorned the title of QCs in that era some of our PCs among the present lot certainly do not deserve to be clothed with that honour. This is not to say that all our PCs are undeserving of the title. Some of them certainly have earned this honour by their sheer ability and long record in the profession. Regretfully, the same cannot be said of a majority of our President's Counsel, especially those who had only been rewarded with the title for past services to the political powers that be and for being loyal party men.

Ideally, individuals to be made President's Council should possess the right eligibility levels. He/she should have fulfilled a laid down criteria. One of the considerations should be his/her length of practice as a lawyer. A benchmark of a minimum number of years’ practice in the upper courts should be laid down. The importance of cases he/she has taken up and their success rate should be another criteria. Skills in advocacy, demeanour and deportment ought to be another hallmark. Regretfully some among our present crop of PCs cannot claim to have fulfilled these criteria. This has resulted in this much honoured title in the legal profession getting devalued.

Besides, today the legal profession is overflowing with President’s Counsel, so much so it is difficult to distinguish one from another. It is certainly unfair on those who have earned heir spurs the hard way to be lumped in with the mediocre. In the past a Queen's Counsel was hard to come by since the title carried a very high benchmark in the eligibility stakes. However, today President's Counsel are a dime a dozen, causing not only confusion but also disenchantment within the profession as can be seen from the BASL President's sentiments.

Hence, a complete overhaul is needed and a strict eligibility criteria worked out by all stakeholders to restore the lost honour of this title. Ideally, their lordships, before whom the counsel appear, would be in the best position to judge if he/she is deserving of the title of President's Counsel. Hence, it will be appropriate if the counsel of leading judges too are obtained before the title is conferred. A minimum age too should be laid for conferment of the title of President's Counsel in order to ensure that only seniors are given the title. This will also prevent the granting of PC status to very young lawyers for their exuberance shown in expressing their views in support of political parties. This was seen in the days of the recent constitutional coup when young lawyers, who virtually camped outside the Supreme Court, to offer their views to the Television mikes on why they thought the Rajapaksa camp will prevail. Had the case gone the other way it is certain that some of these young lawyers would have been made PCs, going by past experience. Such mockeries were much in evidence courtesy all Governments. Why, a thug who led a mob who stoned the homes of judges was made a JP.

Hence, it is vital that the right individuals receive the title of President's Counsel from now on. As suggested by BASL President an advisory council comprising persons of eminence in the legal profession -and outside it- be set up to draw up the criteria for the selection of the right candidates. In the case of a successor to the President, he too should follow the procedure in making the appointments. It is time that the Augean stables are cleaned up and the legal profession conferred with the honour and respect it enjoyed in the glory days of Hulftsdorp. 

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