Legal Practitioners Committee should have more teeth – new bar association head

The newly appointed Bar Council of the Guyana Bar Association (GBA) has a keen interest in improving public confidence in lawyers and the legal profession, according to GBA President Kamal Ramkarran, who said that finding ways to strengthen the powers of the Legal Practitioners Committee (LPC) to impose stiffer disciplinary action, will be explored.

Ramkarran’s statement comes in wake of continued concern that lawyers found guilty of wrongdoing are getting off too lightly.

Speaking to Sunday Stabroek, Ramkarran said that at the Bar Council’s first meeting held two Thursdays ago, the issue of disciplining lawyers and public confidence in lawyers arose.

Kamal Ramkarran

The LPC, he reminded is a statutory body established by the Legal Practitioners Act. The body which hears complaints against lawyers, comprises 15 lawyers, 12 of whom are appointed by the Chancellor following consultations with the GBA with the remainder being state officials from the Attorney General’s Chambers who are ex-officio members.

Ramkarran was asked to give the association’s view on the issue.

He noted that the committee has very limited powers under the law regarding discipline which includes imposing a fine not exceeding $200,000 and reprimanding the attorney.

Article 36 of the Act gives the committee the power to “(a) dismiss the application; (b) impose on the attorney-at-law to whom the application relates, a fine not exceeding two hundred thousand dollars as the Committee thinks proper; (c) reprimand the attorney-at-law to whom the application relates; or (d) make an order as to costs of proceedings as it thinks fit, and in addition, except where the application is dismissed, the Committee may order the attorney-at-law to pay the applicant or person aggrieved a sum by way of compensation and reimbursement and any further sum in respect of expenses incidental to the hearing of the application and the consideration of the report as it thinks fit.”

Ramkarran stressed that based on what is outlined in the Act, the LPC clearly does not “have very great powers. I think if they want to recommend something more serious, they have to recommend it to the Chancellor who then has to take action.”

According to Ramkarran, what he is interested in is either the strengthening of the powers of the LPC to impose stronger disciplinary measures or providing some sort of disciplinary powers to the GBA under the Legal Practitioners Act or some other Act. “How we will get that going, we haven’t fully discussed…We don’t have a position on it …as to what we would do but we are certainly interested in increasing public confidence in lawyers and we are aware that one of the issues is the public believes that lawyers can get away with anything and there will be no consequences,” he stressed.

Recently, Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran had called out the new GBA Bar Council saying that it needs to advocate for the system of discipline to be transformed. He focused his attention on removal from the profession for misconduct and he pointed out that decades have passed without a lawyer being taken before a judge to answer such an offence.

“The LPC itself, like the Medical Council, should have the power to impose sanctions against lawyers,” he said.

“While I am aware that the LPC is very active and that there are no shortages of complaints against lawyers, which are in fact dealt with, the fact is that no lawyer has been tried for misconduct by the judges for many decades. This is clearly one of the reasons why the public lacks confidence in the system of disciplining of lawyers,” he said.

According to Article 35,  “A client or, by leave of the committee, any other person alleging himself aggrieved by an act of professional misconduct, committed by an attorney-at-law other than the Attorney General or a law officer, may apply to the committee to require the attorney-at-law to answer allegations contained in an affidavit made by a client or other person, and the registrar or any member of the committee may make a like application to the committee in respect of allegations concerning any professional misconduct or any criminal offence as may for the purposes of this section be prescribed by the Chancellor with the approval of the bar associations.”

The Act states that if the committee is of the opinion that a more severe punishment such as suspension from practice or removal from the Court Roll, is justifiable, it shall forward to the Chancellor and to the Attorney General a copy of the proceedings before it and its findings.

Once the committee establishes that there is a case for misconduct against a lawyer, it has to report its findings to the judges of the court. The attorney-at-law in question is given an opportunity to show cause why an order to remove him from the Court Roll shall not be made against him and the Attorney-General or an attorney-at-law nominated by him may also be heard.

Former GBA head Chris Ram, in a letter published in the May 31 edition of this newspaper, also spoke on this issue and said that the strongest punishment meted out to guilty attorneys was the refund of money given to them by their clients.

In his letter, Ram noted that lawyers are bound by a Code of Conduct under the Legal Practitioners Act, but “many it seems pay little attention to its prescriptions, confident that they will get away with whatever.”

He said, “even when lawyers are found ‘guilty’, the strongest punishment they face is being told to refund the fees or money paid to them by their hapless clients,” adding that in a civilised environment, such action would require publication but in Guyana, there is no more than “whisper among lawyers while the offending lawyer is free to continue the offending practice.”

Ram used the forum to recommend that a retired judge be appointed to head the LPC with the help of capable full-time staff, and for all its findings to be publicised. “The public needs protection from unscrupulous practitioners,” he stressed.

His comments on the LPC were part of a holistic analysis of the current state of the profession. He said it would appear that lawyers have put their profession into “cold storage.”

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