By Fahri Azzat | From the Bar Stool
Amer Hamzah and I took our Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) course at the University of Malaya (UM) when they used to run it. The time we took it was the second last time they held the course there, 1997-1998. The course was conducted by a mixture of UM lecturers and part-time practicing lawyers. They varied in quality from the amazingly good to the indifferent perfunctory performance; in quantity, the latter outnumbered the former.
Amer typically wore black heavy metal-rock-inspired printed t-shirts and jeans to class. Quite honestly, I thought him rather juvenile for wearing them to lectures. We all wore those t-shirts in college, but it’s now like post-university, dude. Who would have thought the beast he has become began with a slim collection of fictional stories? Who would think he would transform into the famed, feared, fashionable, and phowaargghr lawyer (and vegan athlete and sexy skateboarder) he is today?
We remained acquaintances through CLP. We acknowledged each other whenever we were in each other’s vicinity. We would chat when we happened to be around each other. Outside of that, we made no special effort to hang out with each other. We both had our respective group of friends by then.
Amer and I were the lucky few that passed the CLP on the first go. We filed our call papers around the same time and were eventually called within a week of each other. He pupilled at Zain & Co., I pupilled with my father. His office was just around the corner from the courts when they were located along Jalan Raja. Mine was in Bukit Damansara, a ten to fifteen-minute drive away, depending on traffic.
We would see each other around in the lower courts or the court canteen, where most of us new and young lawyers congregated after our matters. There we always found company, conversation, and drink. There was always someone new to meet or someone to catch up with on any given day. That was the best part about going to court when we started out – hanging out at the court canteen.
Sometime in our second or third year of practice, Amer and I bumped into each other at the airport. Both of us were flying to Alor Setar for a matter on Sunday morning. We were on the Saturday evening flight from Subang. It turns out fortuitously that we booked rooms at the same hotel. We cabbed it there together after we landed and agreed to catch up over dinner.
Before I relate our dinner, I need to set out three matters to provide the context to that dinner.
Firstly, then and now, I believe like a religion that there is at least one book meant for each of us.
That book is meant for us because it speaks to us about our deepest yearnings, yields clues as to who we could become, or teaches us something we did not know about ourselves, or more. That book irretrievably changes us. It doesn’t have to be a famous, classic, deep or holy book. To each our own.
Each sentence recasts us until by the end of it we arrive either at the start, having begun, or completing our own Copernican revolution. Even though we know it was written for the many, it still feels as if it were written only to us. After that book, we do not simply feel, think and appreciate differently; we are different. I wrote “at least one book” because I believe there is more than one. In fact, there are a great many books out there that have such capacity. One of my life quests is to discover these books for myself.
And one of my greatest pleasures is to find such books and give them to those I think suited to them; then watch them flourish or resonate. It does not happen all the time, of course. More often than not, the click doesn’t come. And that’s fine. If it happened all the time, there would be no sense of thrill when it does happen.
But when a recipient gets the book I give them, they would gush about how the book resonated deeply with them or blew their mind open. They are generous in their thanks. I get a deep sense of satisfaction when this happens. I like to be that guy that gives you Dhat Boohke. When that happens, I feel like I have discharged my duty to the recipient and serendipity’s cause.
Secondly, about a year or so prior, I discovered Horace Rumpole, Esq. the fictional character created by John Mortimer, an English barrister, and writer. Or rather I finally stopped being such a tart about it and read him as I feel every lawyer should. Many are surprised to learn I read him late. The reason for that is my pettiness. In university, there was a geek who was quite lansi but had a great enthusiasm for Rumpole. His association with Rumpole turned me off from the character then.
When I finally got around to reading Rumpole, I realised what that lansi fella was on about! Now I was mad about Rumpole too! I had the froth about the mouth sort of fervour about me as well. I bought any book that had the word “Rumpole” on it. If you stamped that name on an empty filthy discarded milk carton, I’d have bought it. I touted him to anyone that gave me the shadow of an opportunity. I suffered the Ancyent Marinere syndrome for my pettiness.
Mortimer wrote a few stories for each individual Rumpole volume. Those volumes were later collected into a three-volume omnibus version. The omnibus version is easier to procure than the original individual volumes. I prefer the individual volumes because they were slim and easier to carry around. In the early 2000s those books were not easy to procure in Malaysia.
Thirdly, before I go on any trip, no matter how long, I must bring a few books with me. Between three to five. It’s not to finish but for variety. Before I left for the Subang Jaya airport, I stood by my bookshelf pondering whether to take a third Rumpole volume. I already had two individual volumes of Rumpole and another two books in hand. Yet, I was still eyeing the slim volume of the “Best-of” Rumpole. There was no need for it. I already had two in hand. But I reached out and took it. It just felt right.
Amer and I had dinner at the hotel coffee house. It was the first time the two of us sat down together properly for a meal. We talked about the usual: our practice, our respective complaints about practice, our ambitions. It was a time both of us still entertained the idea of joining the Attorney General’s Chambers. Amer was doing the usual civil and corporate litigation claims. He said he was bored with it. It’s okay, but it didn’t get his heart racing. That’s when I told him what I was up to for fun.
“Have you heard of the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre?”
“You should. They have a lot of cases and not enough lawyers to do them. You can take up civil or criminal cases, or both. As many as you like. It’s great fun! When I turned up and asked how many can I take, their response was how many can you take? I have taken both civil and criminal cases. All of them are going on at the same time.”
“We can do criminal cases? That sounds interesting. I have been thinking about it but don’t know how to get cases. Is there any criteria to fulfil before I can take up criminal cases?”
“Nope. So long as you have a pulse, a valid practicing certificate, and the desire for the criminal, you are set. There’s just one downside if you can call it that.”
“What is it?”
“There is no pay. It’s all pro bono. You can claim a fifty ringgit travelling expense, but I don’t bother. If you do civil cases you will be reimbursed for whatever advances made for the case. But whatever costs received should go to the legal aid centre.”
“Hiya, small matter lah that one. I’m more interested in doing a criminal case. I don’t have any experience and would like to get some. There is no opportunity to do criminal work at my firm. They do civil work only. This sounds like a good way to get a taste of it. So what, you just go down to the centre and say I want to take up cases?”
By then I was a frequent visitor at the Kuala Lumpur Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (KL LAC). I went there regularly. I frequently took up and returned cases, hung out there after finishing my court matters, and was a member of the management panel committee. I knew everyone at the centre.
“Pretty much. Speak to Mani or Chitrah. Tell them I referred you and tell them what kind of cases you want. They would be happy to have another lawyer on the roster to take up cases.”
“Okay, that sounds good. I will check them out once I get back.”
We talked a bit more then called it a night and returned to our respective rooms.
As I walked back to my room, I reflected on my conversation with Amer. Suddenly the image of the third Rumpole volume materialised in my mind. There was a sense of “Oh, wow, was that why I brought that book along?” feel to it. After I got back to my room, I took the book and immediately went over and knocked on Amer’s room door. He opened the door.
“What’s up, man?”
“If you are thinking of doing criminal cases, you’ll want to read this,” I said and handed him the slim volume of the best of Rumpole. Even though I didn’t think about it at the time, I suppose it was the best introduction I could have given him of the character. After all, it was the best of.
“I think you will like it.”
“Alright. Thanks, man.”
We checked out early the next day and headed to court together.
I don’t remember what happened after that. It’s all a bit hazy. But I do recall Amer telling me not long after he absolutely loved the book. He also told me of his intentions to head over to the KL LAC to take up criminal cases. I heard about it later from someone at the KL LAC that Amer dropped in and took up a slew of criminal cases.
From then on, he did not look back. His discovery of criminal practice was akin to an addict discovering drugs. He did as many criminal cases as he could. He surpassed my tally quickly. He was addicted to criminal work. He would be reading or thinking up arguments all the time. In those days, he would call me up to run an argument he was hypothesising about, on the weekend. He took it much further and more seriously than I did. He looked like he was having the time of his life and I was very happy for him.
What’s more, he was a Rumpole convert. He developed an annoying penchant for declaring “I never plead guilty!”, Rumpole’s credo, especially when we said a case had no merits.
I think he did a variety of cases but early in his criminal practice career, I recall him having a particular interest and success in regard to sexual offence cases. He defended many. He had his fair share of success with them that he was renowned in the KL lower court circles as the “loyar bawah pinggang” (below the waist lawyer). He had women’s groups in an uproar once with his submission for an acquittal for rape with his infamous “cucumber from the back in the darkroom/did not prove penile penetration” argument. His command of the medical terminology and knowledge of the female genitalia was so impressive that a medical officer he once cross-examined conceded he did not know which part of the genitalia Amer was referring to when he used medical terminology, which provoked a wry comment from the bench, “Encik Amer, sex expert ya?”
As was common for volunteer lawyers at the time, Amer was a regular at the KL LAC, like me. He ended up the Honorary Secretary for the KL LAC in the early 2000’s. I took over the position after him. We became fast friends. We enjoyed doing cases and being in the service of the KL LAC. I would pop over to his office after work for breakfast or lunch if we did not see each other in court. We did a few legal aid cases together, which was good fun.
Amer led me on my first-ever death penalty case. I wanted to get my feet wet with such cases but did not yet have the temerity to shoulder the emotional and psychological burden of a guilty verdict on my lonesome. Doing the case with someone who knew what he was doing was a good way to ease myself in. It was a murder case. We lost that one because our client turned out to be a convincing liar and a cold-blooded killer. That the victim’s maid escaped and lived to tell the tale damned them. I didn’t feel bad. We did all we could. Our client was a psychopath. It was what it was.
I remember the time Amer told me he wanted to leave Zain & Co. so he could practice criminal law full time; my only reaction was, about time! Since those early legal aid days, Amer has grown in ability and stature to become a very fine criminal lawyer. When I reflect on the trajectory of Amer’s legal career in crime, I think it is amazing how it took off with a sliver of Rumpole’s best and never stopped soaring after. It gives me immense delight to know I was the one to give him Dhat Boohke.