For far too long, civil society’s concerns about the state of the Judiciary had gone unaddressed by the Government. It seemed that that the acknowledgments this would require, and their implications, were too problematic for the Barisan Nasional to generate the political will this would require.
Consequently, rather than deal with the situation Malaysians were emphatically told instead that all was fine. In this, warnings from various quarters and mounting indications that the institution was in a tailspin went unheeded. The nature and extent of injury this has caused to the institution and our system of law is something that we may never fully recover from without radical steps.
The value of the Bill is chiefly in what it allows Malaysians to do: to move forward and to start looking at solutions.
Though the rhetoric from the Government since March 8th has been welcome, there had been neither tangible acknowledgment of the need for reform nor any concrete indications that steps were going to be taken. The tabling of the Bill has however changed that and we are now on far firmer ground to do what needs to be done. In the same vein, it is also noteworthy that in promoting the establishment of an appointments commission, the Government has also conceded that the way in which judges had been appointed in the past had compromised the independence of the Judiciary.
The utility of the Bill must however be measured against its declared objectives. That the genesis of the Bill lies in the unfortunate events underlying the Lingam Video Enquiry cannot be ignored. These centered largely on the perceived absolute discretion of the Prime Minister to unilaterally determine the appointment and promotion of judges. I say perceived because there had been a time when the constitutional provision concerned had been understood to mean that the Prime Minister would defer to the choices of the leaders of the Judiciary whose advice would have been shaped through consultation with the leaders of the Bar. In this way, care had been taken to ensure that one person did not shape the Judiciary, even if that person was the Prime Minister. As the evidence that came to light during the Lingam Video Enquiry however showed, this had become the case over time.
In this context, for the proposed law to be effective it must substantially minimize, if not wholly extinguish, the risk of this reoccurring. In doing so, one would reasonably expect the Prime Minister’s role to be circumscribed in such a way so as to impede autocratic decision making on his part.
Regrettably, the Bill does not achieve this and instead goes a long way to preserve the absolute discretion of the Prime Minister. It does this in several ways. Firstly, it is not clearly stated that the Prime Minister can only recommend for appointment those persons whose names have been put forward by the proposed JAC. This suggests that the Prime Minister is not bound to do so and can make his own recommendations.
Secondly, the composition of the proposed JAC is worrying for not only involving the leaders of the Judiciary who, as experience has shown us, are not entirely immune from being beholden to their appointing authority, but also a Federal Court justice who might suffer from the same sense of obligation as his or her peers. Four other individuals who are appointed and can be removed at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister complete the JAC. It is evident that this scheme will not inspire much confidence, given our history.
There are other aspects that are equally indicative of a concentration of power in the Prime Minister over the make-up and functions of the proposed JAC. This is worrying for they collectively undermine the stated aim of the exercise for promoting rather than minimizing the role of the Prime Minister. The scheme of the Bill is not easily reconciled with the independence that the proposed JAC would require in order to function effectively.
There are some laudable aspects of the Bill. These include the creation of a duty on the Prime Minister to promote and protect the independence of the Judiciary as well as the characterization of potential conflicts of interests on the part of members of the proposed JAC. These are however of no real value if the core of the Bill is not crystallized correctly.
As other more notable personalities have expressed, all indications point to a need for more comprehensive study and extensive debate. In attempting to give meaning to the independence of the Judiciary, a cornerstone of our system, we are defining an ideal. This is a process that allows for no compromises.
(This comment was written for The Malaysian Insider where it was published under the caption "In current form, JAC falls short of inspiring confidence")