By Geraldine Tong | Malaysiakini

The court trial process came under public scrutiny recently with the deluge of high-profile cases in the past month or so that involved prominent political figures, such as former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, his wife Rosmah Mansor, as well as UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Several observers have said there was a need to expedite the protracted trial process, as many of these cases are still ongoing after several years, with some still pending appeals to higher courts.

Lawyer Samantha Chong said there was a lot of red tape in the system and many stakeholders involved in the process are understaffed and overworked, leading to delays at various stages of the case.

One way to speed up the trial process, she said, would be to transition more towards an online-friendly system, similar to what is practised in Singapore.

Currently, Chong said, any documents related to a case must be in hard copy, including documents the prosecution wants to use in the trial which will be handed over to the defence team.

Due to manpower issues, the mere act of photocopying a huge amount of documents and handing them over to the other side could take any time between a month and up to seven months.

Lawyer Samantha Chong

“Just do it online. All the legal firms are registered online, the court also has all their emails, or they can even approach the Bar Council (for the contact information).

“Why can’t we adopt technology? We can learn from Singapore? They are already doing this. Just send it over email and we don’t need to cut so many trees down,” Chong told Malaysiakini yesterday.

In criminal cases, the case management process could take between four and nine months to be completed from the day an individual is charged, she added.

This is because the usual practice is the prosecution will charge the suspects and then wait for the reports — such as the post-mortem reports, chemist reports, and so on — to be completed by the relevant agencies such as the Department of Chemistry.

Again, Chong said such departments tend to be overburdened and lack technological resources, causing their reports to be delayed by months.

However, she commended the local courts for having made some great initiatives to improve the system, such as introducing the “e-filing” system to make it more convenient for lawyers to file lawsuits.

More reforms needed

Fellow lawyer Andrew Khoo also agreed that the judiciary has attempted to implement some reforms so that the court process can be expedited.

He added that the judiciary has restricted appeals on interlocutory (intermediate) matters and has used stricter case management.

Beyond that, Khoo said they have also sought to minimise the granting of postponements and adjournments.

“However, one has to consider whether an injustice may be caused through a rushed trial.

“While justice delayed could be justice denied, justice hurried could also be justice buried,” Khoo said.

Lawyer New Sin Yew

Another lawyer, New Sin Yew, said the issue of drawn-out court trials is an “incredibly complex” and “multi-layered” problem.

New said the many layers of the problem include the legislation, talents, and litigants themselves.

He pointed to the UK, saying they experienced a similar issue and had attempted to alleviate the problem through the Woolf reforms in the 1990s, which were conducted by then Master of the Rolls Harry Kenneth Woolf, otherwise known as Lord Woolf.

However, the Woolf reforms were targeted only at the civil justice system — addressing the cost, delay, and complexity of the process.

Former Court of Appeal judge Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof pointed out to Malaysiakini that the progress of cases in the civil courts has generally been speedy.

Former Court of Appeal judge Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof

“So much so that our judges are overworked, given the volume and performance indices expected of them,” said Ariff, who also previously served as the Dewan Rakyat speaker.

However, he declined to comment further, saying his knowledge of the court trial process was not up to date.