Malaysian Bar president Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor has concurred with the Attorney-General Tommy Thomas' position that there was indeed a potential conflict of interest when lawyer Syazlin Mansor decided to represent the family of the late firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim and the government at the same time.
However, Fareed (photo above) said it was regrettable that no objection was raised earlier and the instruction for her to withdraw from representing the government at the tail-end of the inquest into Adib's death had given rise to negative perception.
"Indeed, it is indisputable that advocates and solicitors hold fiduciary and/or contractual duties towards their clients.
"It is, therefore, the obligation of every advocate and solicitor to scrupulously guard against, and avoid situations of conflict of interest - both actual and potential - particularly in representing multiple parties.
"The seemingly common interest of various parties being represented by a single advocate and solicitor could potentially result in divergent or competing interests, and thus impair the ability of the advocate and solicitor to act in the best interest of the parties concerned," he said in a statement.
An example of how the conflict of interest could pose problem was if Adib's family decides to sue the government after the inquest, both of which Syazlin had represented.
"The evidence that had been tendered and led by Syazlin during the inquest - that is, when she was simultaneously representing the government and the family - could then be used during the subsequent legal proceedings, hence resulting in a clear case of conflict, as the various parties would then have opposing interests," he said.
Fareed said the Legal Profession Act 1976, the Legal Profession (Practice & Etiquette) Rules 1976, and the Rules and Rulings of Bar Council Malaysia clearly prohibit advocates and solicitors from acting in a position of conflict.
"In light of the above, the Malaysian Bar is of the view that Syazlin (above) should have therefore declined to act simultaneously for the Housing Ministry, the Fire Department and Muhammad Adib’s family.
"While an inquest is not a trial and is only inquisitorial in nature, the strong public reaction to this is itself illustrative that, in the public eye, there is an appearance of conflict of interest," he said.
Fareed noted the negative perception as a result of the coroner and conducting officer not raising objections earlier.
"It is highly regrettable that no objections were raised at an earlier stage of the inquest proceedings, either by the coroner or the conducting officer, once Syazlin was on record for the parties concerned.
"The instructions for her to withdraw as counsel at an advanced stage in the inquest may have contributed to a negative perception by the public regarding the turn of events.
"The unfavourable perception is further exacerbated by the earlier act of the deputy public prosecutor in filing an affidavit that reportedly stated that the death of Adib was not due to beatings by any person, when any findings relating to cause of death are in fact exclusively the prerogative of the coroner in an inquest," he said.
The opposition had accused the government of trying to influence the inquest after the attorney-general instructed Syazlin to withdraw as a government representative.
Syazlin had resigned as both the lawyer for the government and Adib's family even though the Attorney-General's Chambers had no issue with her representing the family.
Despite the controversy, Fareed said an advocate and solicitor must discontinue once his or her position becomes untenable at any stage due to conflict of interest.
"As such, the attorney-general’s action in revoking Syazlin’s continued representation of the Housing Ministry and the Fire Department was a step to resolve the conflict of interest and preserve the integrity of the ongoing inquest.
"As the chief legal adviser to the government, the attorney-general is entitled to take this position, which must not be construed as muzzling any particular or opposing view regarding the events leading to Adib’s demise.
"It is noteworthy that the attorney-general in no way precluded Syazlin from continuing to represent Adib’s family in the inquest; she withdrew from doing so, of her own accord," he said.
Fareed also stressed that Syazlin's withdrawal as legal counsel in no way invalidates or diminishes the evidence that has been adduced thus far, as all such evidence will remain on record.
He urged all members of the bar to be vigilant and circumspect in dealing with such situations.
"It is crucial that these recent developments not be permitted to detract from the ultimate objective of the inquest - to shed light on the circumstances surrounding Adib’s tragic death and to bring those responsible to book.
"The Malaysian Bar calls on all parties in the case to do their utmost to ensure that not only is justice done, but that it is also seen to be done. Truth and justice must prevail," he said.