Chief Justice spells out judiciary’s 2021 action plan for efficiency to save everyone’s time

Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat speaks during a press conference in Putrajaya January 10, 2020. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat speaks during a press conference in Putrajaya January 10, 2020. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 31 — More time-saving measures will be adopted by Malaysian courts from tomorrow to improve the justice system, Chief Justice Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat said today.

In her message in conjunction with the new year, she said the courts will be strictly enforcing measures to further increase efficiency and productivity starting from January 2021.

This includes directives previously issued by the judiciary via Practice Directions in 2017 and 2018 which require lawyers to file their written arguments 14 days before a case is heard in the court, with Tengku Maimun noting the reality that a majority of both private lawyers and government lawyers do not comply with this requirement.

“Most file their submissions a day before or even on the morning of the hearing,” she said in the 20-page new year message.

She pointed out the importance of giving judges sufficient time to read the written arguments to complement the verbal arguments during proceedings.

Tengku Maimun said the lawyers’ compliance with the Practice Directions and timeline will boost judicial efficiency and contribute towards judges delivering quality judgments.

“As such, we now seek to strictly abide by the timeline. All submissions filed outside the 14-day period without leave of court will be automatically rejected,” she said, but noted that lawyers who had their written arguments rejected for failing to comply with the 14-day period will still have the opportunity to present their arguments verbally in court.

Just 20 minutes in physical courts

In Malaysia, those who wish to appeal to the Federal Court do not automatically get to do so, as they have to first seek the leave of the Federal Court in order to appeal and with leave granted based on the conditions under Section 96(a) of the Courts of Judicature Act — such as matters being decided for the first time or matters where the apex court’s decision would benefit the public.

For court hearings carried out physically for applications for leave to appeal to the Federal Court, Tengku Maimun said judges will from January 2021 limit the presentation of verbal arguments to just 20 minutes per party via their lawyers, but with this time limit to exclude the time taken by judges to ask questions to the lawyers.

Pointing out that the hearing of applications for leave to appeal are not meant to operate as an actual appeal, the chief justice said that lawyers had on most occasions presented their arguments as if they were arguing on the actual appeal, and that it was “not uncommon” for lawyers to take more than half a day to argue on the leave application despite the law or principles relating to Section 96(a) being well settled.

“As I have said on many previous occasions, judicial time is far too precious for us. That said, this strict timing rule is subject to exceptions. There may be cases where the Court is minded to extend time if the circumstances so require,” she said.

“What we propose is not novel or extreme, and this approach is not unique to us,” she added.

Tengku Maimun noted that the Supreme Court in the US — the highest court there just like Malaysia’s Federal Court — strictly applies the rule of lawyers’ filing in of written arguments and a 30-minute time limit for verbal arguments in court for all appeals regardless of the cases’ complexity and including the time taken for judges there to ask questions to lawyers.

She also noted that the US judiciary’s website states that the US Supreme Court only accepts between 100 to 150 cases out of the 7,000 cases filed nationwide for review each year, contrasting the US experience with the 20-minute time limit to be imposed in Malaysia’s Federal Court next year onwards.

“What we propose to implement is thus a much more measured approach so that leave motions will no longer be confused for or treated like appeals. Further, this time requirement will only be imposed, for the time-being, on physical hearings and not on online hearings,” she said.

Malay Mail’s check of the Malaysian judiciary’s website shows that both rules — the 20-minute cap on verbal arguments for leave to appeal to the Federal Court and the 14-day deadline for filing of written arguments before court hearings in the Federal Court and the Court of Appeal — will be enforced from January 4, 2021 onwards.

The Federal Court will enforce the 20-minute cap on verbal arguments for leave to appeal in January 2021. — File picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The Federal Court will enforce the 20-minute cap on verbal arguments for leave to appeal in January 2021. — File picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Three-judge panels at the Federal Court

Even before next year’s measures to save court time, Tengku Maimun said Federal Court panels have already been reduced to three judges per sitting or a three-member panel for all civil and criminal cases, with only public interest and constitutional cases having seven or nine judges per panel.

As for leave applications due to interlocutory applications or on side issues to the main lawsuit, these are heard by a single Federal Court judge, as allowed under Section 97(3) of the Courts of Judicature Act.

“The rationale behind this is to allow non-sitting judges greater latitude to balance their hearing schedule with their duty to write judgments while at the same time to increase the number of panels to hear cases on a given day.

“We hope to better strategize and manage the use of valuable judicial time to further enhance judicial efficiency,” she said.

Apart from that, Malaysia is also looking at amending the Courts of Judicature Act to impose a higher threshold for the Court of Appeal to grant leave to appeal for decisions from lower courts, she said.

The chief justice also said that proposed amendments to the law is in the pipeline. These include limiting certain types of interlocutory appeals, and to bar appeals against dismissal of applications for summary judgment or striking out of pleadings.

“In prohibiting such appeals, we do not anticipate any prejudice or miscarriage of justice to the applicants as the matter would ultimately proceed to full trial where parties have the chance to prove their case. The right of appeal remains if such applications were allowed,” she said of the effect of the proposed amendment.

Tengku Maimun said the newly amended Rules of Court 2012 also now has rules that limit the postponement or adjournment of cases to a maximum of three times, unless parties in the court matter can satisfy the judge otherwise.

“The underlying reason behind these changes is to prevent inordinate delay in the disposal of full trials and to ensure that cases get started speedily,” she said.

She also highlighted the judiciary’s initiative to enhance efficiency to delegating the work of High Court judges to Sessions Court judges where it can be done, pointing out that trainings for Sessions Court judges to hear uncontested family law matters have been conducted and that those selected had been appointed as of November 1 to conduct court hearings for such family law matters.

The full speech of the chief justice today for New Year’s Day can be read here on the Malaysian judiciary’s website in both Malay and English.

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