A fully digitalised judiciary is our aim in 2021, says Chief Justice

PETALING JAYA: The MCO during the Covid-19 pandemic had been a blessing in disguise for the judiciary as it forced it to go for digitalisation without compromising the dispensing of justice, says Chief Justice Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat (pic).

In her New Year’s message which was 20 pages long, Tengku Maimun said next year, traffic offenders may not need to go to court at all to settle their cases and they can do everything online.

She also listed out the various ways how the judiciary has evolved and future plans of how cases will be heard in the future.

She pointed out that amendments to the law have allowed the courts to have the power to conduct online hearings.

“These laws came into force on Oct 22 and since then, the consent of parties has not been as significant.

“The Rules Committee has also recently approved amendments to the Rules of Court 2012, Rules of the Federal Court 1995 and Rules of the Court of Appeal 1994 to regulate and prescribe the procedure on the conduct of online hearings, ” said Tengku Maimun.

Despite opposition from senior lawyers, she pointed out that with applications such as e-Court platform aided by e-Review, e-Filing and e-Lelong, online hearings managed to take place in major court complexes.

She said superior and subordinate courts will also be soon upgraded to using the e-Court platform.

“The e-Appellate mechanism has attracted rave reviews. In the past, lawyers would refer to their own bundles of documents and would wait for the judges to catch up to their point of reference. Now, both judges and counsel share a common screen with their documents ready and prepared beforehand. During the hearing, the lawyers - usually through their junior counsel - navigate the screen and refer judges directly to the passage in question. It saves both time and paper and ensures that everyone in the court is literally on the same page at all times.

“In December 2020, we piloted a similar project in selected courtrooms in the High Court at Kuala Lumpur. We call this project ‘e- Bicara’ where all appeals - criminal and civil - emanating from the subordinate courts are heard on an entirely paperless basis.

“In 2021, this will be extended to all branches of the High Court in Malaya, ” said Tengku Maimun, who acknowledged the Bar Council’s reservations on this.

She said the newly inserted Order 33A of the Rules of Court 2012, which came into effect on Dec 15, contains specific procedures on how online trials are to be conducted.

“But even before the coming into force of Order 33A, the High Court at Kuala Lumpur had successfully conducted examination of witnesses online. No process is ever perfect, but we have to move in tandem with time, ” said Tengku Maimun.

She said the online admissions to the Bar, breaking away from tradition, is a new experience for budding lawyers.

Tengku Maimun said that as of Friday (Jan 1), the courts will adhere strictly to written submissions to be handed 14 days prior to the hearings.

This, she says, will allow judges to give quality decisions by having read the submissions in advance.

“However, in reality, the majority of the lawyers - both private practitioners and from the Legal Service - do not comply with this requirement. Most file their submissions a day before or even on the morning of the hearing.

“Practice Directions are issued to facilitate the administration of justice.

“All submissions filed outside the 14-day period without leave of court will be automatically rejected.

“To clarify, parties whose written submissions were rejected for their failure to comply with the timeline will nevertheless have the opportunity to address the Court through oral submissions.

“As for applications for leave to appeal, we will be limiting oral submissions to 20mins per party (excluding any time taken by the bench to ask questions). Motions for leave are not meant to operate as an appeal.

“Apart from public interest and constitutional cases which have seven or nine-member panels, all other cases - civil and criminal cases - are now heard by a three-member panel.

“The Judiciary has also proposed amendments to the law to limit certain interlocutory appeals. We are accordingly working on a draft Bill, to amend the Courts of Judicature Act 1964.

“The amendment seeks to bar appeals against dismissal of applications for summary judgment or striking out of pleadings.

“Another initiative we took to enhance efficiency is by delegating the work of High Court Judges to the Sessions Court Judges where practicable.

“As of Nov 1,2020, the selected Sessions Court judges have been appointed to hear such family law matters, ” she added.

She pointed out the sheer volume of traffic cases has warranted the judiciary to simplify the process of disposal of traffic cases in terms of digitalisation.

“The Judiciary’s plan for 2021 is to digitalise the taking of guilty pleas in traffic cases and to allow the payment of fines electronically.

“To reduce unnecessary foot traffic and to enhance access to justice and the efficiency of the magistrate courts, we propose, in addition to the guilty plea by letter method, to allow the taking of pleas and to impose the sentence of fines only, via a prescribed electronic system.

“The digitalisation of the traffic cases complements e-Jamin, a system that allows for the online payment of bail, and which has been fully operational. We are also looking into introducing a feature which will allow an accused person against whom a sentence of fine is imposed to pay the fine via e-Jamin, ” said Tengku Maimun.

She said that with the use of technology throughout the judicial hierarchy, lawyers and litigants no longer need to carry loads of documents to court.

“One only needs to carry a laptop or an i-Pad. To ease over-the-counter transactions, we have also implemented the use of QR codes for authentication of court documents, ” she added.

She also said the Recording & Voice to Text System will free judges from having to transcribe notes of proceedings.

She also said that in line with transparency and social media age, the judiciary even broadcast court proceedings and judge elevation ceremonies.

“For the Judiciary, there is a ring of truth in the phrase ‘adversity breeds innovation’. I would say that we have achieved more in one year than we have in the past decade if we compare the time taken to roll out our initial e-Court reforms.

“I thank all stakeholders, the Attorney General, officers of the Legal Service and members of the Malaysian Bar, the Sabah Law Society, the Advocates Association of Sarawak and the public who have been supportive of these positive changes, ” said Tengku Maimun.

She further recorded her appreciation and gratitude to her fellow judges and their support staff in courts for their continuous support and commitment.

“There is obviously much work to be done.

“Due to the initial MCO and the reluctance of parties to have their cases heard online, we are now facing a backlog of cases.

“We hope to address the backlog by increasing the frequency of sittings and by increasing the number of cases fixed per sitting. And in this regard, the Judiciary certainly needs further support and synergy from all stakeholders, ” said Tengku Maimun.

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