THE Australian and New Zealand legal professions have publicly condemned the Fiji Government's raid of the country's law society offices on the weekend.
The weekend raid included them removing files from the law society offices. The society has been told it no longer has control of licensing lawyers, and that membership is no longer compulsory.
Today the Law Council of Australia expressed its "grave concerns" about the future independence of the legal profession in Fiji. It raised concerns about Decree 16, which places the power to issue practising certificates in the hands of the Chief registrar of the court, a government employee.
“I am concerned that this could be the first step in the Fiji Government’s attempts to control the country’s legal profession by not allowing lawyers who oppose the regime to practise law," said Law Council president John Corcoran.
The weekend move follows the military regime's reappointment of judges on Friday, just six weeks after firing them all. Those reinstated include two High Court justices who previously ruled that the military's 2006 coup was legal.
Corcoran said it was alarming that these measures had not been the subject of consultation with the Fiji Law Society or Fiji’s legal profession. “Without an independent legal profession, a vital ingredient in upholding the rule of law in Fiji would be missing,” he said.
He said the Law Council was also appalled at disturbing reports which indicate that the Fiji Government raided the offices of the Fiji Law Society over the weekend, seizing confidential documents in the process.
“The Law Council, in conjunction with the Fiji Law Society, will continue to keep a watchful eye on events to monitor whether the new arrangements result in an attack on the independence of the legal profession in Fiji,” Corcoran said.
Fiji's interim attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khayum, said reforms to the society would improve transparency. Fiji's military ruler Commodore Frank Bainimarama ousted the government in a 2006 coup and installed himself as prime minister.
Law societies in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand have urged lawyers in the three countries not to take up judicial postings to serve the regime. Australian and New Zealand citizens often serve as judges in Fiji, which lacks enough homegrown senior lawyers.
“Once you cancel that element of independence you don’t have an effective judiciary at all. It is a police state just like you had in Nazi Germany,” NZ lawyer, Peter Williams QC, told TVNZ.