Ministers, department heads must respect court rulings, reminds ex-judge

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PETALING JAYA: A retired judge said members of Najib Razak’s administration and senior civil servants must be careful in issuing statements against court judgments or they run the risk of being guilty of contempt of court.

Gopal Sri Ram said as such, politicians and civil servants who have no legal training are best advised not to make inflammatory statements as this would undermine the rule of law and expose the ignorance of those making the statements.

“They must set a good example to respect judicial pronouncements and uphold the rule of law,” said the former Federal Court judge.

Sri Ram said ministers and government department heads must seek the advice of the senior federal counsel assigned to their ministries or experienced senior lawyers in the attorney-general’s chambers before making controversial statements.

He said this in response to Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s critical remarks against the Court of Appeal’s decision on the naming of Muslim children born out of wedlock.

Zahid, who is home minister, was quoted by Bernama as telling a gathering last night that Muslims should be united to ensure any decision made by the National Fatwa Council is not challenged by any parties or another legal system.

“We are not against other religions, but matters pertaining to Islam should not be touched on. Let Muslims manage the affairs of their religion,” he said.

On Friday, National Registration Department (NRD) director-general Yazid Ramli said it would continue the practice of adding the surname “bin Abdullah” when registering a Muslim child whose parents are not married.

But lawyers said the Court of Appeal ruling is the law now until and unless the Federal Court sets aside the decision.

Sri Ram said although the government had filed an appeal, it (the appeal) did not operate as a stay of execution.

“So the person against whom the order is pronounced has a duty to comply with it,” he added.

He said the statement by Yazid that the NRD would not comply with the court order is not only wrong but is contumacious and amounts to wilful contempt of court.

“Similarly, if the statement attributed to the deputy prime minister is accurate, then it also amounts to serious contempt of court.”

Sri Ram said in his 50 years’ of experience in the law, there has never been a case where a government department or a minister had either refused to abide by the decision of the courts or made inflammatory statements encouraging disrespect for court orders.

He said the successful litigant may apply to the court to punish the offending person for contempt of court.

“Where the contempt is serious and wilful, the usual punishment is imprisonment,” he said.

Sri Ram said what has happened was without precedence and that it was happening now was most disturbing.

“I would have expected the Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal president to come out in defence of their judges.”

PKR central committee member Latheefa Koya had said the courts should be allowed to decide on the matter impartially on the basis of the law and the Federal Constitution.

She said Zahid was trying to make political capital out of this case, with the general election around the corner.

“It is most unfair as this involves the lives and future of innocent children,” she said in a statement today.

In its written judgment released on July 25, the Court of Appeal explained that the NRD had acted outside its powers when it used the surname “Abdullah” to register a Muslim child born out of wedlock, against a mother’s wish to use the father’s name.

Justice Abdul Rahman Sebli, who delivered the judgment, said NRD had acted out of its jurisdiction to rely on two fatwas issued by the National Fatwa Committee in 1981 and 2003 in refusing to register the surname of the father.

According to the 2003 fatwa, an illegitimate child (“anak tak sah taraf”) shall not have the surname (“tidak boleh dinasabkan”) of the father of the child or the person who claims to be the father of the child.

Rahman said the fatwa had no force of law and the NRD must instead act and enforce what is provided for in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1957, a federal law passed by Parliament.

Justices Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat and Zaleha Yusof were the other members of the bench.