Southeast Asia discusses challenges to liberalising legal services sector

Attorney General Datin Paduka Hjh Hayati delivering her speech at the 6th Asean Law Forum opening ceremony at The Empire Hotel & Country Club, Jerudong. Picture: BT/Rudolf Portillo

THE Asean legal community intends to push forward with the liberalisation of its legal services sector by mulling directives that would allow legal practitioners from Asean countries to practise law in other Asean member states.

The move is aligned with the realisation of the Asean Economic Community Blueprint which aims to create a single market for goods, services and investment, facilitated by the freer movement of business persons, talents and labour.

While five Asean countries - Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam - have pledged "commitments" on legal services in Asean, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines have yet to do so.

Speaking at the opening of the Sixth Asean Law Forum on Progressive Liberalisation of Trade in Legal Services, the Attorney General said that there were several key issues countries must deliberate before pressing ahead with liberalisation.

"The services delivered under (the legal sector) are not easily transferable from one territory to another and its provision depends on legal systems, legal qualifications and practising language," said Datin Paduka Hjh Hayati POKSDSP Hj Mohd Salleh.

"Hosting this event does not necessarily mean that Brunei Darussalam is aggressively advocating the liberalisation of the legal services sector," she said before the closed-door meeting at The Empire Hotel and Country Club. "Rather it was an invitation for members of Asean's legal fraternity to seriously start considering the development of this issue in a more coordinated and structured manner, bearing in mind our collective obligations that have been agreed upon by our leaders under the Asean Charter and more specifically the Asean Economic Community Blueprint."

The Attorney General added that it was necessary for each member state to familiarise themselves with each other's legal systems, legal practices, qualifications and licensing requirements before they liberalise their legal services sector.

"It is my hope that through learning about each other's positions and also factors such as eligibility to practice and to what extent reciprocity is possible, member states are able to make a more informed decision in their considerations of liberalising or further liberalising their legal services sector," said Datin Paduka Hjh Hayati.

She cited Singapore as one country that has pressed forward with incremental liberalisation of their legal services by allowing foreigners to practice Singapore law.

"Lastly, we need to consider if we are going to proceed with this issue by maintaining the status quo of member states making unilateral commitments or if we should go forward collectively as a group. To date, the five member states that have made commitments on their legal services sector have done so without necessarily considering issues of reciprocity from other member states and the possibility of harmonising any rules or regulations on the supply of legal services within the region," she said.

The objective of the two-day forum is to provoke thought among the Asean legal community on the impending need to liberalise the legal services sector in line with the Asean Charter and Asean Economic Community Blueprint. The forum will also give participants an improved grasp of the technical issues involved within the framework of trade liberalisation in Asean and also each member state's position on the liberalisation of trade services in general.

The meeting will be attended by delegates from eight Asean member states, namely Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Invited speakers included members of the Asean Secretariat and representatives from the European Union to relay the EU's experience in liberalising its legal services sector.

The Brunei Times

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