Not all things present become past....

Not all things present become past....

Would-be lawyer Ernst Louwes served a sentence for murder. So he’s got a clean slate again? Not when it comes to entering the bar. Criminal records like his are bad for trust in the bar, essential for legal practice. Why would anybody want to be a lawyer?

Avid readers mastering Dutch to a sufficient degree may at once recognize this famous line from a poem by Rhijnvisch Feith: “Al het heden wordt verleden, schoon ’t ons toegerekend blijft”. Indeed this sometimes saddening truth sprang to mind again in the case of a man convicted in a high-profile murder case. Having served his sentence his next project is to become a member of the bar.

Ernst Louwes, the lawyer-to-be concerned, is at least legally held to have murdered a rich widow whose death might have advantaged him. So at least the cui bono issue does not plead for his innocence. It was rather harder evidence that led to his criminal conviction, upheld before the High Court.

The former convict himself and more than a few other people vociferously keep on professing his innocence, pressing the media and others to pay continuing attention to this “gross miscarriage of justice”. This is not vindicated by something like a convincing alibi (“he could not have done it given the known fact x which is incompatible with the facts of the charge”), which is expected in pleas of innocence. Such pleas are rather different from criticisms aimed at insufficient proof for conviction as voiced in the Louwes case as well, though this important distinction is not always duly observed.

“All things present become past”, no longer amenable to proof by literal demonstration. Indeed the historical truth about the death of this rich or in fact poor widow may never be known. But legal truth established by the ultimate court authorities has to be lived with in the end, in any decent society, however much it may be at odds with historical truth. This is one aspect of litis finiri oportet, of course after exhaustion of all reasonable appeals – all gone through in the Louwes case.

So it may never be known whether justice has been done to Louwes. Indeed he may have been grossly mistreated in the name of the law. Why add to this by barring him from becoming a lawyer? Did he not serve his sentence? So why should he not be entitled to pursue his professional and personal objectives “as if nothing happened”? Or: “All things present become past” again.

This is what Louwes pleads for in court. Still, it may not be a very good idea to admit him to the bar. Public confidence in the bar – enjoying a monopoly in essential public services in the realization of law and right – is not really compatible with ex-convicts as lawyers. Of course, such ex-convicts may never err again. And what about the credibility of contentions and pleas in and outside court by somebody known to have been convicted of murder? Judges and others must have well-nigh super-human professional stances in order not to be influenced in any way by such upsetting and unsettling knowledge.

This is not just an issue with Louwes of course. Any lawyer ought to have a completely clean track record, criminal or otherwise. Though this may not be really sufficient for public confidence in lawyers in itself.

Not admitting Louwes to the bar would also not amount to any underserved punishment against him – though it may be experienced by him as some kind of added sanction. Louwes must be able and willing to pursue some other, non-legal or at least less confidential career. In fact why would anybody want to become a lawyer?


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