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Friday, 28 October 2011

The Malaysia's court and the PM’s Department

The court and the PM’s Department


The separation of powers is a central principle woven into the fabric of our Constitution. And it is essential that the judiciary is not only independent, but also seen to be independent of the other branches of Government.

“MAHKAMAH Jabatan Perdana Menteri”. I have to admit to have been slightly taken aback, to say the least, when I saw these words the other day, embroidered in gold on the black cotton jacket of a member of the court staff at the High Court in Penang. I blinked.

Was I at the wrong court? Had the High Court suddenly been subsumed into the Prime Minister’s Depart­ment? Or was it that the Prime Minister’s Department was now a department of the High Court?

Perhaps I should have understood that cashiers, clerks and other administrative staff at the High Court were civil servants appointed by the executive and assigned to the courts to support the administration of justice.

Perhaps I should have appreciated that in the absence of a dedicated Justice Ministry (which was abolished in 1970), it was only natural that such staff members would come under the Prime Minister’s Depart­ment.

And yet, in spite of every rationalisation that I could think of, I knew, deep down, that the words in gold thread looked wrong, and were plainly inappropriate.

They could not possibly be read by a litigant appearing before the courts without giving him the wrong impression about the relationship between the courts and the head of the executive. And yet some staff manager had ordered those jackets.

Some court staff members were plainly wearing them. And there must have been some judges and registrars who saw them being worn on a day-to-day basis without raising any objection.

The separation of powers is a central principle that was woven into the fabric of our Constitution.

The Alliance submission to the Reid Commission, reflecting the unanimous view of all parties in Malaya, stated that “The Judiciary should be completely independent both of the Executive and the Legislature”.

And for the public to have confidence in the judiciary, it is essential that the judiciary is not only independent, but also seen to be independent of the other branches of government.

Our Merdeka Constitution originally contained admirable safeguards of judicial independence.

Until 1960, Supreme Court judges were appointed by the King upon the recommendation of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, after consulting the Conference of Rulers, with no input from the executive. Only in the appointment of the Chief Justice was the Prime Minister consulted.

The Merdeka Constitution likewise gave the executive no power to suspend or to constitute tribunals for the removal of judges, such powers being vested in the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, which was chaired by the Chief Justice and consisted mainly of judges or retired judges.

History sadly shows that the amendments of 1960, which vested in the executive the right to select, suspend and to commence removal proceedings against judges, ultimately paved the way for the 1988 constitutional crisis, the darkest days of the Malaysian judiciary, during which Lord President Salleh Abas and two other Supreme Court judges were dismissed by the executive.

Yet, even the Merdeka Constitution did not provide for a perfect separation between the executive and the judiciary.

This shortcoming can best be seen in the Judicial and Legal Service (JLS), which supplies magistrates and subordinate court judges as well as government legal officers.

Unlike in India, where the leaders of independence comprised many people imprisoned by the colonial justice system, and where the independence movement therefore campaigned for a strict separation of the judiciary and the prosecution services, in Malaya there has never been any pressure for such a separation.

To this day, it is normal for a JLS officer to alternate between the subordinate judiciary and the government legal services, and for magistrates and Sessions court judges to be junior in the JLS to Senior Federal Counsel who appear before them.

Lawyers will even tell tales of Sessions court judges standing up and addressing senior government lawyers as “Tuan” when the latter enters the judge’s chambers! This state of affairs is plainly unsatisfactory.

Once a judge is appointed to the High Court, he enjoys security of tenure and cannot be removed except for misbehaviour or disability. Nor can the terms of his employment be altered to his disadvantage.

However, that does not prevent him from being given additional benefits by the executive. The most obvious discretionary benefit today is in the conferment of titles.

In England, every High Court judge is knighted, every Court of Appeal judge is made “The Right Honourable” and every Supreme Court judge without exception gets the title of “Lord” or “Lady”.

But in Malaysia, there is no standard system of titles for judges. A judge who is showered with federal titles will naturally be regarded as being a favourite of the executive, whereas if a senior judge retires without any federal title, it will generally be assumed that he has displeased the executive.

The inconsistent awarding of titles within the gift of the executive is detrimental to public confidence in the independence of the judiciary, and has even led to public scandal.

It is high time that the judiciary, the executive and the legislature take concrete action to improve public confidence in the independence of the judiciary.

The setting up of the Judicial Appointments Commission has been one positive step in recent years. It should be followed by further confidence-building reforms.

> The writer is a young lawyer. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, visit