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Protect the ‘noble profession’

Law students in many countries, probably here too, are usually told they are joining “the noble profession”.

In his book Professional Conduct and Advocacy, KV Krishnaswamy Iyer, a former Indian judge, speaks of “the most brilliant and attractive of peaceful professions, with responsibilities both inside and outside it, which no person carrying on any other profession has to shoulder”. He also stresses that “an advocate earns great social distinction, which ought not to be misused at any cost”.

No wonder our Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure demands that for a person to practise law, s/he must be “of good conduct and good moral”. One may argue that the values and morals upheld during Judge Iyer’s time were much different than what they are today. But to accept that would only mean we would also be acknowledging that law is no longer a “noble profession”. For it to remain “noble” all stakeholders, especially society, should ensure that only the very deserving – both academically and morally – are allowed to practise.

The ongoing controversy of whether two law students – a possible ‘third’ has been mentioned – who had been found guilty of theft should be given a warrant or not is focused on the interpretation of the wording of the law. The spirit of the law, however, seems to have been overlooked and this sad episode highlights a disturbing fact: that there is no effective mechanism in place to separate the wheat from the chaff throughout the process of training upcoming lawyers.

Had such a mechanism existed the two students would not have had to face such a controversy. Had their legal impediment been identified earlier, they would have had the option to make other career choices and avoid embarrassment.

The fact that a legal impediment was only noted at the very end, after long years of hard work and sacrifice, no doubt, indicates that nobody at the University – or any other institution/authority – is assigned to ensure students have all the qualifications, and not just academic, set down by law in relation to their chosen profession. In this case, the shortcoming is even more pronounced because the magistrate hearing the case of one of the two students had raised the alarm years ago. In his judgment, handed down on November 12, 2009, Magistrate Antonio Vella commented thus (translated from Maltese):

“This case is very disturbing to the court. The court cannot understand how a person, who has no apparent material needs, should resort to theft to obtain something in a totally illicit manner at the risk of facing a maximum four-year prison term. Such behaviour is completely unexplainable, more so when taking into consideration the fact that the accused and her boyfriend are both students preparing themselves to a career that is both of high standing and carries a huge responsibility.

“With all due respect to everybody, this is not mere student, youth bravado but gross stupidity that could have disastrous consequences on the future of the accused. The only mitigating factor in her favour is that she returned the stolen items and admitted her failings in her statement.”

The magistrate was prophetic. More importantly, he highlighted a loophole that needs to be plugged, for the sake of law students themselves and, more so, the “noble profession”.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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