At opening of Legal Year, CJ stresses importance of technology, says courts will stick with online hearings

At opening of Legal Year, CJ stresses importance of technology, says courts will stick with online hearings

Chief Justice Tan Sri Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat speaks to the media at the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya January 3, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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PUTRAJAYA, Jan 14 — Chief Justice Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat today said that technology has played a crucial role in making the courts more accessible to those seeking justice in any circumstances. 

Tengku Maimun in her speech at the Opening of the Legal Year 2022 ceremony held at the Palace of Justice here said that the crucial challenge for the judiciary and the administration of justice currently, is that considerations have to be made on the state of access to justice in the Covid-19 era.

Tengku Maimun said that the courts have achieved greater technological advancement in two years owing to the pandemic, than it would have, in a decade.

She said that the change in lifestyle and business habits, such as an increased reliance on the virtual world and physical distancing, has also affected the legal profession and the administration of justice, given that it is a very people-centric service. 

“This is especially so in criminal cases where the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are maxims that reign paramount.

“We as judges have adjusted well to remote hearings at least in the context of civil cases, criminal applications and criminal appeals. The screen-sharing technology, we find, assists us with reference to documents and the level and nature of advocacy has improved irrespective of whether counsel before us is senior or junior. We also think that remote hearings have made life easier for lawyers who have been relieved from having to waste time on travel.

“Speaking of ‘zooming’ in, virtual courts have now become an indelible aspect of our system of advocacy. I say indelibly because some have queried when and whether the judiciary will be ‘reverting’ to physical hearings as the norm. I wish to make it clear that the judiciary has always embarked on technological advancements, and online or virtual hearings mark our progress in this direction. The advent of online hearings is not merely a means to cope with the pandemic but a permanent feature of our justice system. There is, therefore, no question of ‘reverting’,” she added.

Tengku Maimun said that in terms of access to justice, the greater reliance on remote hearings has been a boon and that the public and lawyers should feel “less nervous about the grandiose nature of the courts”.

The first female Chief Justice of the country noted that the courts are more easily accessible by the click of a few buttons, which cuts away from ritualism and form, and focuses more on the substantive aspects of justice, which is the case itself.

Though acknowledging that remote hearings are not perfect, owing to technical issues with audio and the internet connection, Tengku Maimun said that the overall gain and accessibility that remote hearings bring, still far outweigh the downsides, which can be worked on.

“Accordingly, the judiciary has invested a greater amount in technology in terms of hardware and software. In terms of hardware, we have purchased better and more sustainable screens and devices and in the Palace of Justice, at least, we have upgraded our Technology Court and courtrooms to cater to our increasing reliance on online hearings which have been equipped with video face equipment, a voice tracking conference system and a virtual conference set,” she said, adding that investments have also been made for numerous Zoom accounts to enable more online hearings and meetings. 

Tengku Maimun said that an upgrade has also been made to the courts’ internet services, to handle the increased load, in addition to establishing a network operation centre and a security operation centre to monitor and maintain the courts’ overall network stability, operation and security.

She said that as proof that the courts are moving forward, a new practice direction on hybrid criminal trials at the superior and subordinate courts is being formulated, whereby parties may be present physically in open court or remotely from any suitable location. 

“To ensure that an accused person is not being prejudiced in any way, this exercise will only be applicable to those who are represented by counsel. For accused persons who are under remand or detention, we propose that the proceedings be conducted from the prison’s location, equipped with the necessary technological tools to support video conferencing. This proposed practice direction, which will apply only to certain types of criminal proceedings ,will be issued sometime in the early part of this year, subject to consultation with stakeholders,” she added.

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