OUR Chief Justice Richard Malanjum will be retiring at the end of this week after 27 years of distinguished service on the Bench.
Of these 27 years, 12 were as Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak and he served nine short but scintillating months as the Chief Justice of our apex court.
It is too early to evaluate how his footprints on the sands of time will be measured.
Sabahans will fondly remember him as the first trailblazer from the state to sit on the High Court, Court of Appeal and Federal Court.
He was also the first Sabahan to be appointed as Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak and the first from Sabah or Sarawak to be elevated to the post of Chief Justice of the land. Observers of the judicial branch evaluate judges on some common scores. First, it is their contribution to the growth of the law.
Second, their independence, integrity and impartiality.
Third, if the judge was heading a court, their administrative acumen.
Malanjum’s remarkable judicial career points to a fourth, new dimension – concern for the poor, the weak and the marginalised.
On each of the four measures, he has done well.
He firmly believes that law must be interpreted creatively and humanely to balance the might of the state with the rights of citizens.
Last week, he wrote a monumentally important, trailblazing judgment that the double presumption of guilt in the Dangerous Drugs Act is unconstitutional.
On many issues of human rights, he stood alone against the executive and delivered dissenting judgments that were applauded by many in the Commonwealth.
Today’s column will, however, touch only on the third and fourth yardsticks of evaluating judges.
At the High Court in Miri, Malanjum introduced a tender system in court auctions to prevent touts and syndicates from manipulating the reserved prices. The system was adopted nationwide subsequently.
In the Sandakan High Court, he introduced the computerisation of courtwork long before peninsular courts embraced this modernity.
He introduced e-filing, case management system and timesheets to improve and monitor efficiency.
He allowed video conferencing, recording of evidence and transcription in his courts. This avoided the need for judges to copiously record every word a witness said.
With online filing, hard copies of case dockets became history, thus freeing large spaces that were once file rooms.
Efficiency, transparency, speed and accuracy improved. Judges and lawyers no longer had to carry around heavy files. Case management no longer required the presence of parties in court but was done online via an e-review menu.
On becoming the CJ, Malanjum encouraged collegiate governance by the top four judges.
He recognised the autonomy in the management of each tier of the courts in Malaysia.
He introduced a consultative committee comprising the judiciary’s top four, the three Bars and the Attorney-General’s Chamber.
He allowed the three Bars to provide inputs for the selection of candidates for judicial commissioners and promotion of judges – something not required by the law.
On the very next day after being sworn into the nation’s highest judicial post, he took note of the disquiet about the CJ’s power to pick and choose which judges will hear a case.
He issued transparent directions on how courts will be empanelled and introduced e-balloting for empanelling judges at the Federal Court, thus avoiding any allegation of judge-fixing.
He introduced a nine-member panel in constitutional cases before the Federal Court, thereby setting up a de facto constitutional court in Malaysia.
He introduced a seven-member panel for public interest cases before the Federal Court.
He introduced the Opening of Legal Year Ceremony in Sabah and Sarawak; conducted continuing legal education both for judicial officers and lawyers; and organised the concept of self-help in cleaning and beautifying the courthouse and its compound.
He introduced a booklet titled Judicial Review Guide for Public Officers: An Introduction for public officers in the civil service and drafted a Code of Ethics for Judicial Officers.
Service to the community
Malanjum possessed a remarkable social conscience and a social perspective.
In the remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak, where legal literacy is low, institutional resources and transport are unavailable and the rays of justice do not reach the poor rural folk, he started an outreach programme of mobile courts to help citizens with such matters as birth certificates, ICs and small claims.
Tens of thousands have benefited from this programme.
Court officials and volunteers bring along used clothing, books, toys, workbooks and school uniform for the rural children.
Other services are also provided by invited volunteer doctors, dentists, lawyers and NGOs.
To serve remote villages, court officials travel by four-wheeled vehicles or boats to hear cases in longhouses or primary schools.
They sleep in tents and cook their own meals.
For small towns without courthouses, custom-made buses are used to reduce transport costs and to save the government the cost of building courthouses.
Night courts were introduced to assist those otherwise occupied.
Under his leadership, the legal community in Sabah involved itself in environmental activities and legal aid. He set up funds to assist the lower-income court staff.
Alternative dispute resolution such as mediation was also introduced in order to reduce the backlog of cases and expedite disposal and save cost.
How far a judge should involve himself in such social amelioration programmes will be a matter of debate for many but not for Malanjum.
He was on the Bench to deliver legal as well as social justice.
He delivered several important judgments on native customary land claims in cases like Bagi Bato v Sarawak (2011), Bisi ak Jinggot @ Hilarion Bisi ak Jenggut v Supt of Lands and Surveys Kuching Division (2013) and MBB v Neway Development (2017).
Though a Chief Judge, he went down to Native Courts to deliver community-based justice.
He spearheaded the enhancement of the native court system.
The nation wishes him and his family happy retirement.
May the years ahead remain full and fulfilling.
Shad Saleem Faruqi is the holder of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Foundation Chair at Universiti Malaya’s law faculty. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.