Virtual hearings the way forward post-Covid-19 pandemic, says Chief Justice

PUTRAJAYA: There is no question of reverting to the old ways of holding physical hearings post Covid-19, says the Chief Justice.

Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat (pic) said the judiciary had always embarked on technological advancements and online or virtual hearings marked its progress in this direction.

“The advent of online hearing 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 said in her speech at the Opening of the Legal Year 2022 here on Friday (Jan 14).

The top judge said virtual courts had now become an indelible aspect of the country’s system of advocacy.

“I say ‘indelible’ because some have queried when and whether the judiciary will be reverting to physical hearings as the norm,” she said.

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, the courts were forced to proceed with online cases on securing the consent of both parties, subject to the interests of justice, as there were no clear permissive legislation stipulating that online hearings or trials were allowed at the behest of the court, Tengku Maimun said.

“Now, Parliament has affirmatively intervened to expressly allow for online hearings irrespective of consent but subject still to the interests of justice,” she added.

The crucial change in law that allowed for online proceedings was made through the newly inserted Section 15A of the Courts of Judicature Act (CJA) 1964, which stated that the court may conduct civil or criminal matters through remote communication technology.

Meanwhile, Section 3 of the CJA defined “remote communication technology” as a “live video link, a live television link or any other electronic means of communication”, which Tengku Maimun said was a very broad definition.

“Consequential amendments were also made to the Subordinate Courts Act 1948 signifying that the continued reliance on remote hearings in the subordinate courts, in addition to the superior courts, will subsist irrespective of the pandemic,” she added.

According to Tengku Maimun, the judges had adjusted well to remote hearings, in the context of civil cases, criminal applications and criminal appeals.

The screen-sharing technology had been found to be of assistance to the judges with reference to documents.

“We also think that remote hearings have made life easier for lawyers who have been relieved from having to waste time on travel,” she said.

While remote hearings have its perks, Tengku Maimun acknowledged that the method was not perfect as there would be issues with sound, Internet connection and some parties did not have the requisite means or access.

However, she said the overall gain and accessibility far outweighed their downside that could be worked upon.

The Chief Justice then thanked the executive arm of the country for allocating the funds required by the judiciary to continue and advance its judicial initiatives.

“I would also like to thank the legislature for passing the laws that made it all the more possible to conduct online hearings.

“It is the judiciary’s hope that all parties can continue to support us for the benefit of access to justice and the public,” she added.