(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): The new Chief Justice of the Federal Court Tan Sri Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah made a most apt and pertinent call yesterday when he urged court officials to raise their ethics to avoid lowering the reputation of the judiciary in the public's eyes.
He said it was crucial for every judge and judicial officer to be mindful of their conduct both during and outside working hours so that there would not be allegations that could tarnish their image.
He also hoped that the integrity of the judiciary could be restored to its former "esteemed position".
The new Chief Justice is right when he stressed that the judiciary must be people-friendly, and be seen not just as the custodian of justice but also as the protector of the rights of the people.
For the past 12 years, the Malaysian system of justice became a national and international scandal because it was seen as an engine of oppression and denial of the rights of the people.
As a result, it became the constant subject of a series of adverse criticisms by the international legal and judicial community, from the 1989 report entitled "Malaysia: Assault on the Judiciary" by the the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights to the "Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000", a joint report of International Bar Association, the Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association and the International Lawyers' Union in April 2000.
Dzaiddin’s place in Malaysian and international judicial history will be determined by his ability to save the system of justice and judiciary from this double jeopardy highlighted by these two reports and his success to bring about a dual restoration in the system of justice - a truly independent judiciary and a just rule of law.
If the new Chief Justice is to make headway in facing the onerous challenge of effecting a dual restoration of a truly independent judiciary and a just rule of law, he should recognise this is not purely an image or P.R. (public relations) problem facing the judiciary but requires wide-ranging systemic reforms involving the co-operation of other branches of government and all sectors of society to restore public confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.
For a start, there should be a full recognition of the rights of everyone in Malaysia to equal and impartial justice adminstered by fair and independent judges. Secondly, it should also be recognised that the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary depend primarily upon public confidence.
This is why the time has come for the Malaysian civil society, and in particular the Bar Council, to play an active role to uphold and protect the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary in Malaysia.
Unlike other countries, where lawyers through their Bar Councils or Bar Associations, together with judges, legal academics and civil society representatives actively participate to uphold and protect the values of an independent, accountable and efficient judiciary, Malaysian lawyers and the Bar Council run the risk of being cited for contempt of court for being equally concerned about these issues of judicial independence, impartiality and integrity.
One of the first reforms Dzaiddin should undertake as the new Chief Justice is to encourage Malaysian lawyers and the Bar Council to come forward and take a leadership role to protect judicial independence, impartiality and integrity and to help identify and remove the causes of eroding confidence in the judicial and justice systems.
As public confidence in judicial independence in Malaysia has reached crisis stage, the Bar Council should set up a Standing Committee to protect and promote judicial independence as is being done by the legal profession in other legal systems.