By: Fadzillah Aishah Ismail
KUALA LUMPUR, March 25 -- The arrangement made by the Sabah Law Society, with the Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak, Datuk Abang Iskandar Abang Hashim, and other state court officers, to conduct virtual and video conference hearings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, has received varied reactions from legal practitioners.
Lawyer Muhammad Farhan Muhammad Shafee said online hearings would definitely be beneficial as almost all physical court hearings had come to a halt as a result of the nationwide Movement Control Order imposed by the government to contain COVID-19.
The suspension of court proceedings would entail a huge backlog of cases and put pressure on both the courts and lawyers once the order is lifted. Hence, the usefulness of online hearings, said the lawyer to Bernama.
Muhammad Farhan, who is part of the defence for former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in the SRC International Sdn Bhd and 1Malaysia Development Berhad trials, said that apart from the advantages which technology could bring during a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, online hearings would also be beneficial during normal time.
“It is not uncommon for lawyers to have to wait in court for hours before their cases are called up. An online platform would make for better work efficiency, whereby we can complete other tasks in the office while waiting for our turns to appear before the judge online. Additionally, the reduction in travel time and the distance lawyers have to travel would mean lesser costs for our clients.
“As a lawyer who has embraced cloud computing, I am excited to hear of such a proposal but the system has to be robust and well thought out. The quality of advocacy must not be compromised. If the solution is implemented well, other features should also be considered, such as the digitisation of documents used during hearings so judges and lawyers have the option to go paperless,” he said.
In a statement on Monday, Sabah Law Society president Roger Chin said the virtual and video conference hearings were necessary in order to ensure that the wheels of justice kept turning whilst minimising the risk of COVID-19 infections among the bench, bar and members of the public.
While agreeing with the Sabah Law Society initiative, lawyer Datuk N. Sivananthan is of the view that virtual hearings are only workable for civil matters which do not require the presence of litigants or witnesses.
Virtual hearings would also be workable for criminal matters when such matters revolved around administrative issues. However, he stressed that where trials and appeals are concerned, the presence of accused persons and witnesses was necessary to ensure that judges were able to observe their demeanour, as this was vital to the decision-making process to determine the veracity of evidence and the credibility of accused persons and witnesses.
“Having a witness give evidence remotely may give rise to the question as to whether the evidence is being given with some external assistance and so on. Further, during trials, counsel frequently take instructions from clients depending on what a witness says, so this again will not be possible if trials are done remotely.
“Save for the caveat above, I am all for getting this done so only trials are left when things get back to normal and we are not lumbered with the backlog of administrative matters to dispose off,” he said.
Lawyer Sangeet Kaur Deo believes the courts in this country have made some digitalising progress in view of e-filing, e-reviews, online case managements and video link evidence in cases involving children.
However, she said, the country did not have the infrastructure that was necessary to support online courtroom hearings.
“It is necessary to ensure that all parties involved have access to such facilities and this will not be easy. What may be workable, is for example, prisons having the facilities such as a specified room with a video link to digitally produce the accused in court, instead of having to bring them physically to court.
“It is something necessary to start looking into. Perhaps the ongoing Movement Control Order has pushed us to finally consider this transition seriously,” she said.
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin today announced that the Movement Control Order will be extended to April 14. On March 16, he declared that the nationwide order would take effect from March 18 to 31.
In line with the order, courts across the country have been closed, with certain exceptions in place including the conduct of proceedings for matters related to new charges, with limited presence in court.
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