x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Raising the bar for the legal profession

Bar associations, or lawyer affiliations, can help set an ethical standard of law practice in the Emirates.

AUAE lawyer stands accused of embezzling Dh400 million from the former prime minister of Thailand. The case is still making its way through the courts, but, as the Emirati lawyer Diana Hamade wrote in these pages yesterday, it is indicative of an ethical quandary in the country's legal profession.

In November, Dubai will host the annual conference of the International Bar Association - something of an anomaly in a country that does not have a bar association of its own. As Ms Hamade correctly pointed out, it is also an opportunity.

The preliminary meeting earlier this month already showed promise. "In the many years I have been part of the legal practice, I have not seen so many regulatory authorities and lawyers sit down together," Ms Hamade wrote. That process of communication is crucial to the legal system.

The country's two regulatory authorities, the Ministry of Justice and the Dubai Legal Affairs Department, are in the process of refining legislation to govern the legal profession in light of growing demands on the judicial system. It is part of a larger judicial reform project that, while painstakingly slow in some cases, is undeniably under way.

Lawyers need to do more to facilitate this process. There are already informal associations that bring professionals together depending on their field; in the case of lawyers, this should be formalised in the establishment of a bar association.

Under 1991 legislation governing the practice of law, the Government licenses lawyers; professional infractions are taken to the courts. There is no reason for that to change immediately. In some countries, in parts of the United States for example, bar membership is mandatory for lawyers - if a person is disbarred, he or she loses the right to practise law.

At least at its onset, there is no need for a UAE bar association to wield that kind of authority. But a voluntary association could still have a substantial benefit for the legal profession and the process of legal reform. The organisation could liaise with regulators to help shape legislation, encourage standard legal practices and adherence to precedent, and crucially establish a code of ethics.

"Fundamental ethical principles should always be present for guidance and disciplinary rules should be implemented when necessary," wrote Ms Hamade. If the practice of law is to remain an honourable profession, lawyers must take the necessary action.