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New Chief Justice must be independent of political alliances

KUALA LUMPUR, 9 Oct 2008: The person picked to be Chief Justice must be widely perceived to be above and independent of any political alliances or influences.

With the present Chief Justice Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad set for compulsory retirement on 18 Oct 2008, the Malaysian Bar, in a statement released today, said it is imperative that his replacement have the necessary qualities to set the tone of the Judiciary and guide its direction.

“This is all the more critical at this time when the nation faces many political challenges.  An independent judiciary stands above the fray, giving the nation’s citizens a sense of security and stability that justice will continue to be administered in accordance with the rule of law, no matter what the circumstances,” said the Bar President Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.

Conventionally, the second most senior judge, the Court of Appeal president would be promoted to the post of Chief Justice. The current president Tan Sri Zaki Azmi was parachuted to the Federal Court in September 2007 and appointed as president of the Court of Appeal three months later. 

However, Zaki’s deep involvement with Umno has been attacked by various parties.  He was previously the chairman of the Umno’s election committee, deputy chairman of its disciplinary board of appeal and party legal adviser.

Ambiga stressed that it is precisely to overcome any hint of subjectivity or collateral purpose in the appointment of judges, including the Chief Justice that the Bar Council and other organisations have pressed for the establishment of a Judicial Appointments Commission.

“In the absence of such a Commission, it is hoped that the applicable criteria which represent the acceptable norms in such an appointment will guide the selection process of the important position of the Chief Justice,” said Ambiga.

Ambiga said seniority in terms of the position currently held, and years of experience on the Bench, as well as ability and competence, which are often reflected in the quality and number of judgments written, are important criterion. Integrity, judical temperament and a demonstration of independence are also vital qualities.

The most senior judges in the Court of Appeal now are Datuk Gopal Sri Ram, Datuk Mohd Ghazali Mohd Yusoff and Tengku Baharuddin Shah Tengku Mahmud.

“It must not be forgotten that it is the chief justice who sets the tone in the Judiciary and guides its direction. He heads the third branch of government, and hence a critical national institution. He must therefore enjoy the confidence of Malaysians,” added Ambiga.

The Conference of Rulers will meet in Kuala Terengganu next week to decide on the new Chief Justice, based on a list of names provided to the prime minister by the outgoing Chief Justice. The Constitution requires the rulers’ consent for judicial appointments.

Ambiga said the constitutional process of consultation with the Conference of Rulers is critical in the appointment of the Chief Justice.

“It draws on the wealth of the Rulers’ wisdom and experience and raises the process above partisan politics.  In short, it provides an essential check and balance in the appointments and promotions of judges,” she added.

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