Court rules retired judge can appear for client over Orang Asli trust fund

Idrus-Harun-gopalPUTRAJAYA: The Court of Appeal today ruled that a retired judge who is now practising law can appear for his client, who has been ordered to return RM37.5 million to a group of Orang Asli.

A three-man bench chaired by Justice Idrus Harun said there was no merit for Saling bin Lau Bee Chiang and 70 others to disqualify Gopal Sri Ram from representing former lawyer S Kanagawi.

“The application to discharge the respondent (Sri Ram) has no merit,” Idrus said of the unanimous decision.

Lau and the rest from the Jakun tribe had filed the application to disqualify Sri Ram from appearing for Kanagawi as the latter was a judge in the Court of Appeal which ruled they had the right over a 53,000ha plot of land in Linggiu near Kota Tinggi.

Lawyer Manjeet Singh Dhillon, who appeared for Sri Ram, said his client was not involved in the trust issue when he heard the Johor government’s appeal against the Orang Asli in 1998.

“Sri Ram is now engaged by Kanagawi for the Court of Appeal to determine whether the trust established in 2000 is illegal,” he said.

Lawyer Tommy Thomas however said Sri Ram should be disqualified due to conflict of interest.

In 1996, then-High Court judge Mokhtar Sidin ruled that the Orang Asli from the Jakun tribe living around the Linggui water catchment area must be compensated for loss of livelihood, hunting and foraging.

Kanagawi had represented the Orang Asli against the authorities.

The Court of Appeal, led by Sri Ram, upheld the decision, and the Federal Court dismissed the state government’s leave to appeal.

In 2000, the High Court in Johor Bahru established a trust, where RM22 million was placed under the Linggui Valley Trust Fund while another RM16 million was payment for legal fees and other costs.

Between 2000 and 2008, 52 families were each paid RM900 a month from interest accrued from the fund managed by Kanagawi and two other batins (headmen).

In 2009, the Orang Asli led by Saling filed a suit to compel Kanagawi to account for the money under their care and control.

Last year, Justice Shamsuddin Hassan ordered Kanagawi, now barred from legal practice, to return RM37.5 million to the Orang Asli after deducting payment of RM500,000 in legal fees.

Shamsuddin found that Kanagawi and his legal firm were liable for misusing, mismanaging and misappropriating money that was meant as compensation from the Johor government.