The Achilles’ heel of lawyers’ privileges

The Achilles’ heel of lawyers’ privileges

Under conditions of extreme corruption in the legal system, should lawyers’ privileges be limited?

Indonesia is known as a country with serious corruption problems. As a result, allegations of corruption almost automatically lead to prosecution. The perception that suspects of corruption are guilty by default easily leads to violation of due process and may even undermine the rule of law. This applies particularly in cases of corruption by lawyers, who hold certain privileges to protect their clients’ interests.

If one lawyer’s name is known to virtually all Indonesians, it is OC Kaligis. Not only because he is constantly in the news, represents celebrities, has a lavish lifestyle, admits to having 10 wives, has fathered 20 children, and is known to employ pretty women as his associates, but also because he is the lawyer of the Soeharto family. In a way, he personifies the image of a lawyer to Indonesian people. Almost every prominent Indonesian litigator has been trained at his office and several of them later opened their own successful practice.

OC Kaligis was arrested by the Corruption Eradication Commission a couple of weeks ago. He is accused of complicity in the bribery of three judges of the Administrative Court in Medan. His associate, Yagari Bhastara, along with the judges and the court registrar were caught red-handed by the Commission in Medan and were flown to Jakarta for further procedure.

A few days later, members of the Commission along with 20 fully-armed policemen raided the office of OC Kaligis, who claimed to have no knowledge about his associate Yagari bribing the judges. The Commission called Kaligis in for investigation and placed him under a travel ban, and then arrested him as a suspect. He is now awaiting trial. Represented by 150 lawyers set to defend him by questioning the legal procedure followed in his arrest, this is looking to become the trial of the century.

It does look as if certain standards of privileges for lawyers have been violated in this case, including independency, their rights to confidentiality and the right to be protected from government interference. However, the limits of these privileges are not always clear and this case raises a number of questions concerning these limits. To what extent should lawyers indeed be held as independent from their client, from their firm and from the government? Can OC Kaligis be held responsible for his associate’s actions? How much confidentiality should the government recognize and respect? And eventually there is a more fundamental question underlying all of this: should lawyers’ privileges be limited in countries where corruption in the legal system is pervasive?

I hope these kinds of questions will be addressed in the coming trial of OC Kaligis. For now, we have only learned from this case that not even Indonesia’s best-known lawyer is immune from prosecution on corruption allegations. Whether this means that all are equal before the law is another question. Ethics violation seems to be the lawyer’s Achilles’ heel.


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