KUALA LUMPUR: The potential conflict of interest in lawyer Syazlin Mansor acting simultaneously for the government and firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim’s family should have been spotted much earlier by all parties involved in the inquest, says the Bar Council.
Commenting on the withdrawal of Syazlin last week from representing the ministry of housing and local government, the fire and rescue department and Muhammad Adib’s family, the Malaysian Bar said it was disconcerted with the developments in the ongoing inquest into the death of the firefighter.
“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,” said Malaysian Bar president Abdul Fareed Abdul Gafoor.
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, he said in a statement.
“It is 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,” Abdul Fareed said.
Citing the prohibition against advocates and solicitors acting in a position of conflict in the Legal Profession Act 1976 and its professional practice and etiquette rules, the Bar president said that Syazlin should have 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.
To complicate matters, Abdul Fareed said the deputy public prosecutor (DPP) had earlier filed an affidavit that reportedly stated that the death of Muhammad Adib was not due to beatings by any person. Any findings relating to cause of death were exclusively the prerogative of the coroner in an inquest, he noted.
“All parties concerned should have adopted a more prudent and cautious approach from the outset. The failure to do so has led to unnecessary speculation and adverse perceptions,” said Abdul Fareed.
The Bar president also noted that Syazlin should not have been appointed directly by the housing ministry and the fire department to represent them, when lawfully it is an officer from the Attorney-General’s (AG) Chambers who should appear for the government and its agencies.
Nevertheless, once a lawyer’s position in a matter becomes untenable at any stage of the proceedings due to a conflict of interest, the person must discontinue from acting for parties with divergent or competing interests, he said.
“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 Muhammad Adib’s demise,” said Abdul Fareed.
“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 Muhammad Adib’s tragic death and to bring to book those responsible,” he said.
In a related development, a new DPP will represent the housing and local government ministry along with the fire and rescue services department in the inquest, the Malay Mail Online reported.
Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin said the decision was reached after a meeting with AG Tommy Thomas on Saturday, it said.
“The AG has rightly taken the position that the new DPP assigned will adopt all evidence and submissions adduced and raised in the Coroner’s Court by our previous lawyer, Syazlin Mansor.
“This will include the evidence of professor Dr Shahrom Abdul Wahid,” Zuraida said in a statement, referring to the retired consultant pathologist and forensic expert from Hospital Chanselor Tuanku Muhriz.