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RESTORING FAITH: The structure, operation, administration and resources of the courts have been transformed
THE underpinning of a stable democracy is the Rule of Law. At the very first full meeting of Pemudah, the Special Taskforce to Facilitate Business, in 2007, a significant call to action was made by private sector member Tan Sri G. Gnanalingam.
He highlighted key areas of the judicial system needing significant improvement, as related to the "ease of doing business".
People and businesses alike need assurance that their investments, both personal and monetary, are well protected against corruption, abuse of power and undue influence. At the time of that Pemudah meeting, the private and the public sectors' perception of the judicial system was jaundiced.
Domestic and international investors saw Malaysia as an increasingly risky environment for the protection of long-term investments.
The level of distrust in the Malaysian judicial system was such, that, where they could, multinational corporations operating in Malaysia would specify in their articles of incorporation that the Singaporean courts would be used for the adjudication of issues.
Ultimately, all stakeholders must trust that the judicial system is neutral and competent at every level and that fairness will prevail in the judicial processes.
The very good news is that since 2007, the Malaysian Courts have undergone a significant and dramatic turnaround!
Under the timely leadership of then Chief Justice Tun Zaki Tun Azmi, a pervasive programme of reform was undertaken by the judiciary working collaboratively with Pemudah.
This process continued since 2011 under current Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria with equal commitment and capable leadership. The transformation has substantively affected the structure, operation, administration and resources of the courts, restoring faith in the judicial system.
There had been a daunting and growing backlog of cases numbering well over 100,000 and going back 10 to 20 years in many instances.
A frequent occurrence was the absence of records of court cases underway, which were lost or misfiled, precluding conclusion of the case.
This was because there was absolutely "no filing system". Records were simply thrown into large, dishevelled stock rooms.
There were also no verbatim records or transcriptions of actual court proceedings.
The only records were the notes taken by the presiding judge in longhand and not verbatim.
This often led to incomplete, inaccurate and incomprehensible records used as a basis for court decisions and for subsequent appeals, which left room for abuse.
Zaki refused to accept this deplorable situation. He took action!
The following is a list of the monumental accomplishments:
TOTAL and comprehensive reorganisation of all file rooms and registries across the judicial system;
ESTABLISHMENT of a single registry case tracking system;
ESTABLISHMENT of timelines and performance measurements for disposal of cases;
ESTABLISHMENT of dedicated specialised commercial courts, Islamic banking courts, intellectual property courts and admiralty courts;
INTRODUCTION of seamless on-line "e-Court" administration which computerises key processes;
UPFRONT emphasis on mediation to preclude unnecessary court cases; and,
EXPEDITED appeals through special panels.
Other significant changes are close at hand:
RADICAL changes simplifying and expediting civil litigation through substantive amendments to the Civil Procedures Rules and Modes of Conducting Trials;
AMENDMENTS passed by Parliament that increase the jurisdiction of the subordinate and magistrates courts and substantively reduce the number of cases at the High Court level;
EXPANDING e-Courts to the 418 courtrooms spread out in 95 locations throughout Peninsular Malaysia; and,
COLLABORATION with the Malaysia Productivity Corporation to develop a Client's Charter and a Court's Guide Book for the Public.
Furthermore, a Judicial Reform Committee has been established and tasked with developing the "blueprint" for the judiciary over the next two decades to continue strengthening judicial systems and procedures.
It will focus on institutional reforms so as to improve access to justice for all levels of society with speed and impartiality.
All this has enabled the courts to work with increased efficiency and productivity.
The case backlog, for example, has been reduced to more manageable numbers.
Malaysia can take great pride in all of this. The transformation of the courts is a continuing journey that must reflect the changing needs of business and society.
The successful transformation of the last few years has helped to significantly improve Malaysia's ranking in the World Bank Doing Business Report 2012 for "Enforcing Contracts".
Malaysia has moved from 60th place in 2009 to 31st position in 2012 among some 180 countries.
Even the World Bank has remarked that Malaysia has set a world-class example in judicial reform.