When Zahir Malik started practising law in 1955, most senior counsels in Kenya today had not been born.
Kenya was still eight years away from independence, and disputes involving natives and foreigners were handled by different court systems. Courts were found only in major towns — Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.
At 90 years of age this week, senior counsel Malik is the oldest practising advocate in the country, and by extension, the region. Senior lawyers and judges refer to him as ‘‘the senior most’’ senior counsel.
For 64 years, the commercial lawyer has paced the corridors of justice, and is one of only a handful of attorneys who have practised in both colonial and independent Kenya. His family’s law firm, A.H. Malik & Company Advocates, is also one of the oldest regionally, having been started by his father, also a lawyer, in 1946. The firm specialises in commercial law, property law and conveyance.
Between 1972 and 1973, Malik was the president of the Law Society of Kenya. He has served under 19 chief justices in Kenya, the highest for any currently practising lawyer. Even at his advanced age, Mr Malik still goes to work. But for health reasons, his doctor has recently advised him to go to the office only during morning hours and rest in the afternoon.
So, what has changed between now and the time he joined the legal practice as a young professional?
According to Malik, standards in the profession have drastically fallen, and it has become tougher for practitioners.
‘‘It is more difficult to be a lawyer today than it was when I started out,’’ Malik observes. ‘‘There also isn’t much discipline in the profession and within the judicial system today,’’ he adds.
He goes on to say that cases are taking longer to conclude today than was the case before, denying justice to thousands of Kenyans.
In his view, the case backlog problem is not only for lack of capacity, but sometimes due to sabotage. The deferment of cases, usually for reasons that are not justifiable, Malik says, hurts the quest for justice.
‘‘If a case has been heard and proceedings concluded, it doesn’t make sense to defer judgment for months. Why would anyone push judgment for up to four months? Whose interest does this serve?’’
Malik also weighs in on the tiff between the Judiciary and the Executive. ‘‘The fight between the Judiciary and the Executive is dangerous for the delivery of justice. By cutting its budget, the Executive is undermining the important role that the Judiciary plays for a country to function properly,’’ he says.
To young lawyers, Malik advises commitment to the profession. He says the young lawyers should refrain from being obsessed with money. “Your ambition should be to excel in your work and to facilitate justice. The trend today is that our young lawyers chase money without due regard for justice for the parties they are representing,’’ he laments.
On what keeps him going, Malik says his family and friends’ support have been crucial. ‘‘Family is the greatest gift I have had in my long career. They have given me peace. If they were stubborn, I’d have stopped practising many years ago,’’ he says.