In a local first, Sabah court gives out sentence assisted by AI

Chief Justice for Sabah and Sarawak Tan Sri David Wong Dak Wah (right) speaking to reporters after the first time use of artificial intelligence in court to mete out sentences, in Kota Kinabalu February 19, 2020. — Picture by Julia Chan
Chief Justice for Sabah and Sarawak Tan Sri David Wong Dak Wah (right) speaking to reporters after the first time use of artificial intelligence in court to mete out sentences, in Kota Kinabalu February 19, 2020. — Picture by Julia Chan

KOTA KINABALU, Feb 19 — The Malaysian judiciary passed sentences for the first time today using artificial intelligence (AI) technology in the Kota Kinabalu magistrate court. 

Four cases, under Section 12 of the Dangerous Drug Act 1952 was heard by magistrate Jessica Ombou Kakayun, who meted out sentences to two accused who pleaded guilty, after reviewing recommendations from the AI system.

Chief Justice for Sabah and Sarawak Tan Sri David Wong said it was a momentous occasion for the Malaysian judicial system, which was to his knowledge, among the first in the world to use such technology to recommend sentences based on previous cases that would be more consistent, and efficient.

“I am happy with it. The accused was given a chance to maintain his guilty plea after being told of the likely sentence. The accused could make an informed decision. 

“As compared to before he had only had an idea of the sentence, so it’s an improvement to the system,” said Wong.

He reiterated that the AI would only provide recommendations based on information of precedence from the courts database between 2014 and 2019 to save time, but the ultimate decision maker would be the person on the bench.

“It just makes it easier on the Magistrate or Sessions court judge. I can assure you it will lead to consistency of sentencing,” he said, explaining that disparity between sentences from one court to another is a worldwide complaint in judicial systems. 

“In any jurisdiction in the world, the complaint is lack of consistency, why is one sentence for a year while another is a fine only. Using the machine to analyse all data will achieve consistency, it speeds up the process a little because the magistrate doesn’t have to look up previous cases while listening to submissions,” said Wong.

Although for now the AI will only be used for two offences — drug possession under Section 12 of the Dangerous Drug Act and rape under Section 376 of the Penal Code — Wong said it would eventually include civil cases as well to prevent backlog and improve efficiency in court hearings.

“We are in the process of doing it for the civil side — awarding damages for injuries in car accidents. We are hopeful that we will have something in 36 months. It is useful for the judiciary because both lawyers will know what are the likely damages to be awarded and with that they can negotiate settlement before court and that will mean less cases, so court can deal with genuine disputes,” he said.

Meanwhile, in today’s hearing, lawyer Hamid Ismail, acting on behalf of his client Denis P Modili, who had pleaded guilty to being in possession of 0.01 grams of methamphetamine objected to AI being used in the sentencing of his client’s case, saying it was a breach of Federal Constitution.

“The court should confine to only materials presented in the court. AI is not in accordance with the law. Although the court can choose to ignore it, I am afraid it might influence the decision,” he said.

He said that the use of AI was a breach of Article 5(1) and Article 8(1) of the Federal Constitution.

Article 5(1) states that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with the law, while Article 8(1) said all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.

In mitigation, Hamid said that the amount of drugs found on Modili was very low and said the sentence to be under five months’ jail. He also asked for the punishment to be carried out concurrently with the present eight months’ sentence for self-administration of drugs which he has been serving since December 16. 

Kakayun said the courts will proceed with the use of AI, and sentenced Modili to 12 months’ jail to run concurrently from his existing sentence. The AI had recommended 10 months of imprisonment.

Hamid said that he will file an appeal to the High Court as the use of AI involved constitutional issues.

Earlier, Kakayun had sentenced Christopher Divineson Moinol to nine months’ jail for being in possession of 0.16 grams of methamphetamine on October 22 last year at the roadside of Kampung Cenderamata 2, Likas. 

Christopher, 26, who was also represented by Hamid, pleaded guilty to the offence was recommended nine months’ imprisonment by the AI, which Magistrate Kakayun adhered to.

When speaking to the press, Wong said that lawyers were entitled to make objections and that he would let the objection and appeal take its course.

“This AI is a new tool for the court; unless it is tested in court, we will not know whether it is constitutional or not. It is also not proper for us to say whether it is constitutional or not, as that means giving our views while in office.

“But we expected challenges like this. Anything new which may infringe the rule of law or the Constitution, we have to take the challenges as it comes,” he said.

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