Lawyers snub ‘old’ judge

MASERU — The Law Society of Lesotho (LSL) wants all lawyers to boycott a former chief justice who has been temporarily re-hired by the state to preside over the trial of a newspaper editor facing contempt of court charges. 
Retired judge Peter Cullinan, who was Lesotho’s chief justice from 1988 to 1991, is presiding over the trial of Father Maleka Mathibeli, the editor of the Sesotho paper Moeletsi oa Basotho.
However, it is the LSL’s stance against Justice Cullinan, 81, that is likely to take centre stage in the next few weeks.
The LSL council first took the decision to snub Justice Cullinan in June 2004 following what the society called “questionable judgments” by the South Africa-based judge.The LSL has decided to invoke the boycott after two senior lawyers appeared before him in Mathibeli’s trial. 
Prominent lawyer Haae Phoofolo, who is representing Mathibeli, and crown counsel Advocate Hopolang Nathane incensed the society after they appeared before Justice Cullinan last week.
LSL president Zwelakhe Mda said the council made the decision after “it realised that Justice Cullinan was perceived by the public to have been appointed by the government to deal with specific cases in which it had a special interest”.
“It was felt that he had made some decisions too favourable to the government in some cases,” Mda said.
“It was also felt that when he left Lesotho in the 1990s there was a dark cloud hanging around him.
“Apart from that we also felt that when he was recalled for some caes in 2004 he was way past the age of 75 which is the age that judges are supposed to reach before they retire.”
Mda said Justice Cullinan had also passed judgments that were “questionable in that they seemed to be going against our ethics as lawyers in Lesotho”.
So when Phoofolo and Nathane appeared before him last week the society promptly sprung into action and wrote letters reminding them that the 2004 resolution was still in force.
“As you are aware, the society as a statutory watchdog of the rule of law, charged with the responsibility of assisting in the administration of justice, and effect improvement in the practice of law takes a serious view of your unprecedented action at variance with the society’s principled stand,” said the letters written to the two lawyers.
“Finally, you are accordingly advised that the said resolution is still existent and you are expected to adhere to it accordingly.”
Mda said Phoofolo and Nathane had apologised, saying they had forgotten about the resolution.
“Even the law society had only known that Justice Cullinan was presiding over the matter when it had already started,” Mda said.
But Mda said even their apology did not resolve the issue because they could not “just pull out of the matter”.
“The problem is that this matter has serious complications,” he said.
“If those two lawyers refuse to appear in that case they too might be charged with contempt of court.
“That meant the council had to allow them but that too created more problems.
“Some members felt that the council did not have the mandate to deal with the matter.”
Mda said the society will today hold a special conference to discuss the matter.
The conference is the supreme decision-making meeting of the society.
The council is responsible for running the society and implementing its policies.
“The conference is meant to deal with that issue,” Mda said.
“It should be noted that although the decision to boycott Justice Cullinan had been made by the council it had also been endorsed by the conference.
“That is why it is such an important decision.”
Mathibeli, a Roman Catholic clergy is charged with publishing material which the state alleges was attacking and undermining the credibility of the court.
The court had to adjourn on Monday morning for the lawyers to attend a crisis meeting called by the LSL to discuss the Justice Cullinan matter.
When it resumed in the afternoon Justice Cullinan called the lawyers and the accused into his chambers.
Phoofolo later told the Lesotho Times that they were proceeding with the case because it was the order of the court.
“We have been placed in an invidious position,” Phoofolo said.
“We have to carry on with the case because the judge said if we do not continue it would be contempt of court.”

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