Access to justice in the new normal

Rizal Faisal

In a resourceful way, the Legal Year 2021 was inaugurated yesterday according to health guidelines – sans a guard of honour – without sacrificing the grand tribute to justice.

Chief Justice Dato Seri Paduka Steven Chong presided over the ceremony and welcomed guests with an addressing of the country’s legal fraternity and reflecting on key developments in the judicial system in 2020 and set forth initiatives to be undertaken for the year ahead.

He said from 2019 to 2020, 74 per cent of criminal cases filed in the Intermediate Court were cleared, whereas 81 per cent in the Magistrate’s Court.

For commercial cases filed in the Intermediate Court, 84 per cent of cases were cleared whereas for civil cases in the Magistrate’s Court, 81 per cent of cases were cleared.

The chief justice said the average time taken to conclude commercial cases in the Intermediate Court in 2019 was 344 days, showing a marked improvement from 2018 with an average of 598 days.

Opening of the Legal Year 2021 at the Supreme Court of Brunei Darussalam. PHOTO: BAHYIAH BAKIR
Law officers at the event. PHOTO: BAHYIAH BAKIR

He added that statistics have shown that from January to December 2020, 93 per cent of judgements in the Magistrate’s Court and 84 per cent of judgements in the Intermediate Court were delivered within one to three months.

Touching on the post-pandemic judicial landscape, the chief justice emphasised that while significant improvements have been made, “it is to be expected that there will be a backlog of cases filed before or during the COVID-19 closure… (and) the backlog, if not addressed, poses not only administrative issues but also economic ones. As such, all stakeholders must assist in facilitating in the prompt and efficient resolution and disposition of the disputes”.

The chief justice underscored the Judiciary’s continuing efforts to effect payments to creditors from Official Receiver’s accounts set up for bankruptcy and insolvency matters and announced that from January to October 2020, payments of composition and dividends have been declared in 430 cases totalling BND17,957,779.83.

He added that the number of rescission orders granted increased from 59 cases in 2019 to 147 cases as of October 31, 2020.

In his early tenure as the public prosecutor, Attorney General Haji Ahmad bin Pehin Orang Kaya Laila Setia Bakti Diraja Dato Laila Utama Haji Awang Isa addressed the Chief Justice at a Legal Year inauguration for the first time.

In his address, the attorney general touched on the development of his officers at the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) and the importance of creating the right environment to help them reach their full potential.

He said that “despite travel restrictions, AGC officers have had the opportunity to participate in online seminars and other programmes to aid in their professional development”.

The attorney general added that another priority of AGC is to foster and maintain good working relations which are vital in building trust as well as ensuring that the legal system is understood and enforced in a right manner.

He said the AGC will continue to conduct dialogues and in-house trainings and support agencies such as the Royal Brunei Police Force, Department of Scientific Services and the Anti-Corruption Bureau through talks, workshops and seminars.

The attorney general also vowed to work in gaining public confidence and forging better synergy with government agencies.

“This is important in the joint effort between the AGC and the government agencies,” the attorney general said, “which is evident, especially in last year’s most challenging and important cases – that of the prosecution against two members of the judiciary for criminal breach of trust, money laundering and unexplained wealth.”

He also said more cases of serious nature, such as drug trafficking, murder and armed robbery will be brought to the courts as soon as investigations are completed.

“This is proof that the various enforcement agencies are relentless in bringing these matters to the public prosecutor’s attention and that it is time for the AGC to ensure these matters are brought to their ultimate conclusion based on fact, law and precedent.

“I, of course, cannot forget the relationship between the AGC and the Law Society,” he added.

The Attorney General concluded by highlighting the value of private practitioners’ perspectives, adding that “it is essential that we have more interaction and constructive dialogues with them”.

Meanwhile, Law Society President Pengiran Izad Ryan bin Pengiran Laila Kanun Diraja Pengiran Haji Bahrin expressed hopes that issues relating to the access to justice as a result of the COVID-19 will be minimised and resolved quickly.

“This would include the ability for accused persons to be able to speak with their counsel of choice,” said Pengiran Izad Ryan while noting the complications of certain civil matters that have been affected by travel restrictions relating to the health crisis.

He also commended the populace for showing unity during the height of the outbreak by displaying trust in “the requirements and guidelines issued by the medical authorities… that the science is correct; trust, for example, that a 14-day quarantine after travelling abroad is best for all; and trust that our fellow citizens will also do the right thing.”

The Law Society is set to resolve various matters, such as working with the Ministry of Development to address issues relating to the registration of caveats under the Land Code.