Private practice, public purse

Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC -
Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC -

WHEN CONSIDERED against the slow pace of reform of the system of bestowing “silk” or senior counsel status, the Cabinet’s reluctance to release the names of lawyers who have benefited from lucrative legal briefs takes on a worrying complexion. We object.

Two senior members of the Cabinet, themselves individuals who moved from private law practices into public office, last week set out the Government’s approach to the disclosure in Parliament of the identities of attorneys tied to millions worth of briefs.

“My ministry undertook an exercise to ascertain the consent of the relevant attorneys regarding the publishing of their names for the purpose of my being able to assist the House,” disclosed Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, on June 7 as he asked for more funds for his ministry.

Earlier in the week, Mr Armour had alluded to the need to respect “the privacy of individuals” and to discharge his duties in accordance with his constitutional role.

Minister of Energy Stuart Young, meanwhile, cited the Freedom of Information Act to suggest the AG was correct in law. Mr Young alluded to the act’s designation of “personal information” and its mechanism through which a person whose information is to be released can apply to the High Court for review.

“The law provides for that,” Mr Young advised. “If you are going to give out my information, tell me so I could go and challenge it.”

Both officials overruled a long line of precedent and practice under successive governments. It did not seem to matter that what was under discussion was $120 million in expenditure by the Treasury.

“Numbers alone can be misapplied,” the Attorney General said. “Unless relevant context is considered, it would be inappropriate and wrong.”

But for him, the “context” in relation to recent fees was profligate levels of legal spending by a past government and an apparent practice of opposition attorneys bringing “frivolous” cases that the State must pay lawyers to defend.

However, those are both excellent reasons for more transparency, not less. It is precisely because there has been bobol in the past that we need names.

The resort, without irony, to the freedom of information law to block information conveniently overlooks the law’s authorisation of the release of personal information when it is not unreasonable to do so. It is completely reasonable for citizens to know how funds are being spent by public and quasi-public entities.

Otherwise, we are left with a system of patronage in which politicians can say which lawyers become silk, can appoint them to plum posts and can dole out briefs behind a veil of secrecy.

Lawyers can stay in private practice, all the while reaping the benefits of the public purse. They can have their cake and eat it, while citizens have none.

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