Chief Justice says Malaysia’s top judges don’t dictate to High Court that has full independence

Chief Justice of Malaysia Tan Sri Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat speaks during a press conference in Putrajaya January 10, 2020. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Chief Justice of Malaysia Tan Sri 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, Apr 1 — Malaysia’s four most senior judges do not tell their High Court counterparts how to decide in court cases, Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat said.

Tengku Maimun, who is the highest-ranking judge in Malaysia, instead stressed that the High Court is fully independent when deciding its cases. 

“While the President of the Court of Appeal, the Chief Judge of Malaya, the Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak and I are responsible for policy matters and are responsible in ensuring that judges comply with such policies, we do not, in any circumstance, direct or dictate your decision. 

“You have complete independence to decide the cases before you, according to the law and the facts. It is my hope that in arriving at every decision in every case, you would keep in mind the various aspects of integrity I mentioned earlier,” she had said in a March 29 induction programme for judicial commissioners at the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya.

Tengku Maimun’s speech at the induction programme was delivered just days before the swearing-in today of new judicial commissioners to the High Court.

Judicial commissioners perform the same duties and functions as High Court judges, and typically hold the post for a two-year probation period before confirmation as High Court judges.

Independence, impartiality, integrity

In the same speech, Tengku Maimun stressed on the importance for judges to be independent and impartial, as well as to have integrity.

She noted that the trust and confidence of the people in the judicial system to deliver impartial justice is the very foundation of the judiciary.

“You should remain independent and decide cases without fear or favour and without any pressure from any quarters, whether internal or external. 

“You should always act with dignity and perform your duties to the highest standards to uphold and maintain the integrity of your office,” she said.

The chief justice also said that judges have to impartially decide court cases by giving all parties fair treatment and an opportunity to be heard.

She further said that judges should refrain from deciding on court cases if they have personal knowledge of the disputed facts or connections to either parties, or if they have an interest in the outcome of the case.

The chief justice also highlighted the Judges’ Code of Ethics 2009 where judges in Malaysia are tasked with the duties to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary, to avoid impropriety in judicial activities, to perform judicial duties fairly and efficiently and to minimise risk of conflict arising from extrajudicial activities.

While noting that integrity is sometimes narrowly seen as only whether a judge can resist corruption in the form of money, Tengku Maimun said that having integrity actually includes not only the ability to resist corruption, but also to “fully respect the core values of independence, impartiality, personal integrity, propriety, equality, competence and diligence”.

What a good judge does

Earlier in the same speech, Tengku Maimun listed the qualities of a good judge by citing ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, saying this includes hearing courteously, answering wisely, considering soberly and deciding impartially, as well as former chief justice Tun Dzaiddin Abdullah’s description of a good judge as discounting any prejudices “whether they relate to race, religion or politics”.

Speaking to the newly-appointed judicial commissioners, Tengku Maimun noted a judge’s duty is to “consider, balance and weigh the conflicting versions and arguments” presented by lawyers in court cases.

Among other things, she also said the role of judges is to find out the truth in court cases before them, and that they can ask witnesses questions during court hearings to clarify points that are unclear in their testimony.

She noted, however, that judges should refrain from prolonged questioning of witnesses or questioning in a manner and to an extent which gives the impression that they are no longer impartial, noting: “If you do intervene to an excessive extent in a trial, that will eliminate or impair your ability to assess the evidence or to adjudicate upon the case independently and impartially.”

Tengku Maimun also highlighted the importance of judges writing the grounds of their judgment in court cases, as it would lead to more care in arriving at decisions and also sounder decisions, and to enable parties to know why they had won or lost a case and to also enable other lawyers to see the basis on which future cases would probably be decided.

Having written grounds of court decisions would also allow the appellate court hearing appeals to understand the lower court’s decision, and will also curb arbitrariness and ensure accountability and transparency in the judicial system, Tengku Maimun said.

The chief justice also stressed that a good judgment need not necessarily be long, as long as it covers all the points which the court was required to decide on.

She advised judges to avoid making findings on points which are not being disputed by parties in court cases, as Malaysia’s judicial system is an adversarial system which requires the courts to only decide on matters in dispute.

She also said judges should avoid making unnecessary comments against parties or lawyers in cases either verbally or in their written grounds of judgment, saying: The point here is that, when you are on the Bench, you should listen more and talk less. If you need to speak, you should never ever by your words, demean any of the parties before you.”

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