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Published: Thursday February 11, 2010 MYT 7:24:00 PM

Always bear in mind justice: Outgoing Justice Gopal Sri Ram

PUTRAJAYA: Judges must always bear in mind the justice of a case when deciding to grant postponement of a trial or to enter judgment in the absence of a party, Justice Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram said Thursday.

The Federal Court judge, who will be retiring next Tuesday, said there must be good grounds for postponing a trial or for setting aside a judgment obtained by reason of the absence of a party or its counsel during a trial.

“That is not to say that a trial ought never to be postponed or that a judgment entered in the absence of a party ought never to be set aside. Each court case depends on its own facts. We cannot over-emphasise that justice is too precious a commodity to be sacrificed at the altar of expediency,” he said.

Sri Ram said judicial arbiters were working very hard to clear the backlog of cases and they must aim for a trial to take place a few months and not several years after the commencement of the action and counsel on all sides must cooperate to achieve that.

He said this in his seven-page grounds of judgment in a dispute between the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) and 354 Felda Kemahang settlers in Tanah Merah, Kelantan over payments for palm oil fruits.

Sri Ram: “We think it is safe to say that gone are the days when the absence of a solicitor or counsel or a party on the hearing dates will be looked upon with leniency.”

Sri Ram, 66, is well-known for giving on-the-spot oral judgments and landmark judgments relating to public, contract, and industrial law. He was Court of Appeal judge for 15 years before being elevated to the Federal Court last year.

He has the distinction of being the first lawyer in private practice to be appointed straight to the Court of Appeal when it was set up in 1994. He never served as a judicial commissioner or a High Court judge.

In the case, the Federal Court comprising Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, Federal Court judge Datuk Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin and Sri Ram on Jan 19 denied Felda leave to appeal against the Kota Baru High Court’s decision ordering the agency to pay RM7.8mil in damages and interest to the settlers.

The High Court had awarded the sum to the settlers after hearing their claim without Felda’s lawyer, who did not turn up, and decided in their favour after accepting the evidence of their witnesses. The amount has since increased to RM11mil. The matter is now pending review under Rule 137 of the Rules of the Federal Court. The Federal Court on Wednesday granted Felda a stay order of the High Court’s decision pending disposal of its review application.

The settlers brought the suit against Felda in 2002 seeking between RM20,000 and RM30,000 each in general damages as they alleged that the agency had understated the quality of their oil palm fruits from 1996 to 2002, which caused them to suffer losses.

In the judgment dated Jan 22, which was made available to the media today, Sri Ram said the High Court judge had correctly used his discretion to proceed with the trial without the presence of Felda’s lawyers and subsequently accepting the evidence of the settlers’ witnesses and awarding the damages to the settlers.

“There is material placed before us that shows that the applicants’ (Felda) solicitors were aware of the hearing date. In fact, solicitors for the respondents (settlers) took the unusual but cautious step of writing to the applicants’ solicitors reminding them of the trial date.

“Despite this, neither counsel nor solicitors for the applicants appeared before the High Court on the morning of the trial,” Sri Ram said.

In the grounds of judgment, Sri Ram also reiterated that only on rare cases such as in this particular case, would the Federal Court give its reasons for granting or refusing leave. -- Bernama

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