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Fiji government plan to issue law licenses raises international concern

[JURIST] Representatives of the New Zealand Law Society (NZLS) and the Law Council of Australia (LCA) [official websites] said Monday that the Fijian government's plan to take over the issuance of legal licenses threatens to disrupt the rule of law in the country. In a decree [text, PDF] issued Friday, the government of Fijian Prime Minister Commodore Josaia Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] said that licenses to practice law in Fiji would be granted by the chief registrar of the court, a government employee, rather than by the Fijian Law Society [official website], an independent bar association that had been issuing licenses for 12 years. NZLS President John Marshall called the move "very disturbing" [press release] because:

An independent legal profession is a vital element of the rule of law. The legal profession represents individuals in claims against the State and defends them in criminal cases brought by the State. Lawyers must be independent of State interference to be able to represent clients freely and fearlessly. ... We are very concerned to learn that the Fiji Government, through the Chief Registrar, will now decide who should hold a practising certificate.
LCA President John Corcoran said [press release] that he was "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." Both organizations said that they would monitor the issuance of practicing certificates once the registrar takes over in June to determine if they are granted in a way that threatens legal independence.

Fijian President Ratu Josefa Iloilo [official profile] in April reappointed Bainimarama as prime minister, suspended the constitution [JURIST reports], and revoked the appointment of all judicial officers. The move came as a response to a Court of Appeals of Fiji ruling [JURIST report] that held in a case brought by ousted Fijian prime minister Laisenia Qarase [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] that the appointment of a military government following a 2006 coup [JURIST report] was illegal. The Fiji Law Society urged judges deposed by the suspension to remain in office [JURIST report] and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Iloilo to reinstate the deposed judges [JURIST report]. Concerns about the constitutional suspension have also been expressed [statement text] by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US State Department [official website] spokesperson Richard Aker, who said that it was a step backwards [press release] for the country, and called on Fiji to continue to recognize rights outlined in the suspended constitution.

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