The Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) could lose its authority as the sole body regulating the legal profession after a Harare lawyer challenged a law that established it.
Joshua Chirambwe, in a High Court filing this week, is seeking a declaratory relief that sections 58, 64 and 65(1) to (5) of the Legal Practitioners Act are invalid and in violation of the constitution.
The lawsuit comes after the government issued threats to reform the LSZ which has been critical of rights abuses under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The Legal Practitioners Act requires one to be first a member of the LSZ before they are registered by a judge of the High Court and admitted as a lawyer.
Chirambwe argues that this is unfair because the constitution gives everyone the right to associate with organisations or groups of choice. He says he does not want to be affiliated to the LSZ, which he accuses of sometimes pursuing political objectives.
He said in an affidavit: “It (LSZ) has organised demonstrations on political issues having nothing to do with the practice of lawyers or professional regulation.
“It has made statements against government policies without checking if members such as myself agreed with those statements.
“The right of freedom of association is violated when money is taken from non-consenting legal practitioners as LSZ dues without giving them a choice to get a practicing certificate without paying such money.
“In further violation of the right to freedom of association, funds taken without one’s choice under section 74 are used to fund the LSZ’s activities.”
Chirambwe says the issuing of practicing certificates by the LSZ weakens one’s independence in the profession.
“In order to practice as a legal practitioner, one requires a practicing certificate. By law, this certificate is issued only by the LSZ. In terms of section 8 of the Act, all privileges that accrue to being a legal practitioner are dependent on having a practicing certificate,” he said.
Continued affiliation to LSZ was against his personal choice, he told the High Court.
“… continued membership in the LSZ in its incarnation as a trade union is not by choice but dependent on one being registered as a regulated legal practitioner. The freedom to join trade unions in section 65 of the constitution also means the right to choose to leave. The Act also effectively… makes it impossible… for me to make that choice now and decide to no longer be a member,” he is arguing.
“It is my view that professional regulation should be professional. This arrangement is not.”
Chirambwe cited the LSZ, Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi and the Attorney General Prince Machaya as respondents.
Ziyambi recently threatened amendments to the Legal Practitioners Act, which would include giving the minister of justice power to appoint four councillors to the Law Society Council, up from the present two.
The justice minister would also have power to approve or disapprove external funding raised by the Law Society of Zimbabwe “in the national interest.”
Ziyambi made the threats after the LSZ criticised constitutional amendments giving more power to the president to appoint the attorney general and judges without public interviews.
The LSZ has lost its mandate,” Ziyambi fumed. “They have converted themselves into an activist lobby group. They no longer know why they exist, they have lost their bearings.”