Let top judges serve a little longer, says Bar president

Malaysian Bar president George Varughese.

KUALA LUMPUR: Outgoing Malaysian Bar president George Varughese has called for slightly longer tenures for the posts of chief justice, Court of Appeal president, chief judge of Malaya and chief judge of Sabah and Sarawak.

“Only then will they be able to make changes and put in place the reform agenda,” Varughese, who served as Bar president for two years, said in an interview with the media here today.

However, he said judges should leave office upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 66 years plus six months.

“Only the judges who have a longer time before retiring should be considered for these posts.”

Adding that gender should not be a consideration in the appointment of these positions, he said women judges should be given the opportunity to hold such posts as well.

“Nothing wrong with a capable lady holding the position of chief justice,” he said.

Varughese was speaking ahead of the Bar’s annual general meeting tomorrow, where elections will be held to fill key positions.

He was asked to respond to the close retirement date of Chief Justice Richard Malanjum, who will leave office in April, and Chief Judge of Malaya Zaharah Ibrahim who will retire in May.

Court of Appeal president Ahmad Maarof, who is second in line in the judicial hierarchy, will retire in November.

Four of the 14 judges in the apex court are women, the most in Malaysia’s judicial history.

They are Zaharah, Alizatul Khir Osman Khairuddin, Rohana Yusuf, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat and Nallini Pathmanathan.

Speaking today, Varughese also suggested that the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) look for judges with leadership qualities from the Court of Appeal and High Court to fill any of the four administrative positions.

“Alternatively, JAC could source candidates from among senior lawyers,” he said, citing the appointment of Zaki Azmi who was later made chief justice in 2008.

He also urged the commission to consider more candidates from among lawyers for appointment, to improve the quality of the bench.

“We have 19,000 lawyers compared to about 1,500 candidates from the Judicial and Legal Services,” he said, adding that past records showed that those appointed from the Bar had done exceptionally well.

He said Zaki had taken steps to clear the backlog of cases while Gopal Sri Ram, who started in the Court of Appeal, wrote many landmark judgments, the legal principles of which were adopted in other countries.

He suggested as well that the composition of JAC be widened to include senior lawyers and members of civil society, to vet candidates for promotion to the bench.

“The current composition of five coming from Federal Court and four nominated by the prime minister is lopsided,” he said.

He also proposed that the Federal Constitution be amended to remove the veto power of the prime minister to reject candidates recommended by JAC.

“The prime minister can have a role, but a limited one,” he said. “If he rejects, he must give his reason for being uncomfortable with the proposed name.”