Raise the bar on magistrates’ performance, say ex-judges

Two retired judges and a lawyer say magistrates must be qualified in law, experienced and mature.

PETALING JAYA: The calibre of some magistrates leaves much to be desired and steps must be taken to see they dispense justice in a humane manner, two retired judges and a senior lawyer said today.

They said this was important as the Magistrate’s Court was the first line of justice when it came to matters of remand, bail proceedings and sentencing of accused persons.

The legal eagles said while current magistrates may be qualified in law, experience and maturity were equally important in dispensing justice.

Retired Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram said candidates who wanted to apply to become magistrates should have at least three years of experience as a lawyer.

“This would give them sufficient exposure to handle criminal and civil cases,” he said.

Further, he said, the chief judge of Malaya (CJM) should make it a point from time to time to meet magistrates in the states to discuss the law and sentencing principles.

“I remember judicial administrators like the late Annuar Zainal Abidin and Haidar Mohd Noor meeting magistrates even in small districts,” he said.

He said magistrates in remote locations also acted as administrators as they had to ensure court fines were accounted for and summonses issued to ascertain the presence of witnesses.

Sri Ram was responding to questions raised by the public in recent weeks about magistrates who imposed excessive sentences on those who flouted the movement control order (MCO ), and which led to intervention by the High Court, and the apparent lack of understanding of the law by subordinate court judges.

On April 8, the High Court ordered two labourers who had been sentenced to three months’ jail by a lower court after being caught fishing to feed their families during the MCO period to perform community service instead.

Judicial Commissioner K Muniandy said the non-custodial sentence was appropriate after considering the interest of the public and the appellants.

Last week, a Bangladeshi who pleaded guilty also had his 60-day jail term substituted with a RM1,000 fine by the High Court.

The penalty for violating the MCO is a maximum fine of RM1,000, six months’ jail or both.

Earlier this week, Indian national Tufail Ahmad was allowed to leave jail after his employer posted RM1,000 in bail. The 35-year-old tailor had been in a police lock-up and then the Sungai Buloh prison for 23 days from April 11.

Tufail was sent to prison on April 24 because there was no Hindi interpreter available to explain his charges to him. His plight was brought to the attention of the Malaysia Bar, leading to the scheduled June 12 mention date being brought forward.

Another retired judge said inexperienced magistrates were bound to make mistakes but that the High Court could quickly rectify an injustice by way of revision.

“Sentencing is a matter of judicial discretion and magistrates could also opt to give a binding over for first time offenders instead of sending the person to jail or imposing a fine,” said this former judge who was once a CJM.

The retired judge, who declined to be named, said candidates should be sent for a short course at the Judicial and Legal Service Institute before being posted as magistrates.

“These days, young law graduates are made magistrates and believe they are powerful on the bench,” he said.

He said that about 50 years ago, members of the civil service were appointed magistrates and did an excellent job as they were matured, experienced and humane in handling people before them.

Meanwhile, lawer Rajpal Singh said deputy public prosecutors and senior assistant registrars were usually appointed magistrates but that some of them lacked the judicial temperament.

“They get influenced over emotional matters and are ignorant about constitutional and human rights issues,” said Rajpal, a former co-chairman of the Bar Council’s criminal matters committee.

Rajpal said magistrates must be sensitised to the fundamental rights of persons in dealing with remand and bail applications.

“In the administration of justice, they are the first to come across any injustice by the authorities,” he said.

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