Legal Year 2020 opens with new initiatives

Rizal Faisal

The remarkable tradition of the legal fraternity coming together for the inauguration of the Legal Year continued this year as well, as Chief Justice Dato Seri Paduka Steven Chong unveiled new initiatives to strengthen the Brunei Darussalam judiciary through the introduction of media guidelines and a judicial conduct handbook, yesterday.

“In reporting about the courts, media outlets and journalists play an important role in helping the public understand our work,” he said, before explaining that the media guidelines were written to “Promote transparency and the principle of open justice; facilitate fair and accurate reporting of matters before the court; and enhance public understanding of the court’s function and its work.”

The Chief Justice also announced the introduction of a judicial conduct and ethics handbook which sets out guidelines for judges and judicial officers about their conduct.

The handbook “will not only assist our judges and judicial officers in exercising their duties, but also secure respect and support for the Judiciary,” he said, adding that the handbook does not act as a Code but provides “a set of principles that reflect the court’s mission and goals, particularly in respect of preserving public trust and confidence.”

He also spoke on the appointment of two judicial commissioners and two judicial officers in 2019 to cope with the higher caseload of the judiciary, which involves cases that are increasing in complexity.

Opening of the Legal Year 2020 at the Supreme Court of Brunei Darussalam. PHOTOS: BAHYIAH BAKIR
Chief Justice Dato Seri Paduka Steven Chong inspects the guard of honour
ABOVE & BELOW: Attorney General Dato Seri Paduka Haji Hairol Arni bin Haji Abdul Majid and President of the Law Society Pengiran Izad Ryan bin Pengiran Laila Kanun Diraja Pengiran Haji Bahrin deliver their speeches

Law officers at the ceremony

“These additions to the Bench, both local and international, have brought together a blend of diverse talents and backgrounds and I am heartened that we have in place a strong team of judges and judicial officers to lead us forward in contributing to the work of the judiciary,” the Chief Justice said.

The Chief Justice spoke on the ongoing efforts to implement changes and improve processes throughout the judiciary. He was pleased to report that statistics showed in 2019, 94 per cent of judgements in the Intermediate Court and 87 per cent of judgements in the Magistrate’s Court were delivered between a period of less than one month to three months.

The Chief Justice expressed encouragement of the “change in attitudes towards the monitoring of the cases, with an emphasis on statistics in relation to clearance rates and waiting periods, and the adoption of a firmer approach towards case management.”

Last year saw a healthy increase in the number of cases mediated before accredited mediators, highlighted the Chief Justice on the judiciary’s efforts to encourage the use of mediation.

He also mentioned of Brunei Darussalam becoming a signatory of the United Nations Convention on International Agreements Resulting from Mediation in August 2019 and how it underlines the commitment of the country on the use of mediation in settling commercial disputes.

Among the achievements in 2019 was Brunei Darussalam’s substantive improvements for the indicators on ‘Enforcing Contracts’ and ‘Resolving Insolvency’ on the World Bank’s annual Doing Business Report 2020.

The Chief Justice said that Brunei Darussalam “climbed in the rankings to #66 and #59” and that “this can be attributed to the publication of reports and statistics online by the judiciary and reforms made in improving creditor’s rights when undertaking insolvency proceedings.”

Meanwhile, speaking on developments by his chambers, Attorney General Dato Seri Paduka Haji Hairol Arni bin Haji Abdul Majid highlighted the challenges ahead in overcoming the issues of money laundering.

“There appears to be an increase in the prosecution of money laundering cases due to breaking up large amounts of cash into smaller denominations, depositing into bank accounts, selling of proceeds of crime and purchasing items using proceeds of crime,” he said.

The Attorney General stressed the enforcement agencies need to urgently overcome this issue efficiently, with early detection on money laundering and prompt investigations.

He said that this would complement, if realised, the ASEAN Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters which is still in the pipeline.

“There is a pressing need for consultation, coordination and cooperation among countries to address the issues of money laundering, which has become sophisticated with the aid of technological advances like the use of so called ‘anonymity enhance cryptocurrencies’ that has impeded access to evidence gathering,” he said.

With the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Order and Prevention of People Smuggling Order in place from 2019 (which repeals the previous legislation while covering both offences), the Attorney General said the new Orders have enacted additional elements in its provision (in terms of court procedures and victim protection) to strengthen and improve the existing legislative framework as the issue has become increasingly difficult to detect expertly, with its intricate infrastructure involving major and minor players, and purely for profit.

“This is again especially true when many individuals consent to being smuggled to escape hardship and poverty to seek better opportunities abroad, thus, making it difficult to detect them as being victims or offenders, and as this difference is not readily apparent,” the Attorney General said.

The Attorney General commended the increased awareness and engagement between enforcement agencies in tackling this issue, especially with the involvements of foreign embassies as well.

Among other issues, the Attorney General mentioned the need to revise and legislate new laws if needed, to improve the efficiency of the legislative framework in data protection to promote economic growth, particularly in an online environment, and ensure a high level of protection of fundamental human rights.

The two-tier system in the disciplining process under the Legal Profession Act has also been a concern for the Attorney General. The Attorney General’s Chambers has met with Law Society members and drafted an amendment that makes provision for disciplinary matters to be dealt with by the disciplinary committee. At the same time, it does away with the existing two-tier system, where challenges are present in the stages of appointment of additional members to be part of the process, contributing, partly, in the delay in disposal of matters.

The Attorney General pledged to facilitate IP protection and enforcement to thrive, and discussed need for future expansion with the return of the Brunei Intellectual Property Office (BruIPO) into his chambers and his appointment as the Registrar since April 2019.

The BruIPO covers the Trade Marks Act, Industrial Designs Order, 1999, Plant Varieties Protection Order, 2015 and Patents Order, 2011.

In his inaugural speech at the opening of the Legal Year as President of the Law Society, Pengiran Izad Ryan bin Pengiran Laila Kanun Diraja Pengiran Haji Bahrin, who also presided in 2010, agreed with the Chief Justice in his speech at the opening of Legal Year 2019. He pledged to steer the Law Society by seeking “to build on what has gone before and to make what incremental changes it can to improve things, without seeking to re-think our purpose or mission or how we will go about doing things.”

Among others, the President of the Law Society envisaged the Law Society’s volunteer members will provide mitigation and negotiation services to applicants on criminal matters, in their scope of private legal aid – other than the legal advice clinics.

He also said that young lawyers would be able to hone their advocacy skills, without necessarily having to undertake work gratis at the expense of their employers, whilst improving access to justice.

The Law Society has established a fund, with approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, to pay some costs for representation in the Law Society’s expanded scope of private legal aid, and with this, it opens up opportunities for practice. It is hoped that funding will derive from donations from law firms, individuals and companies.

The President of the Law Society also believes that the proposed amendments in the disciplining process under the Legal Profession Act will continue to safeguard the interests of the profession and encourage the trust of the public.

The challenges met by the Law Society, addressed by the president, is the increased number of young lawyers entering the profession, and for them to find sufficient work thus giving them a sustainable and long-term livelihood.

He said Law Society members need to step-up and “equip themselves with the tools necessary to be able to remain relevant in this ever-changing world.”

It is also important for members of the legal profession to speak freely in the courts, whilst exercising the privilege with responsibility and integrity, to earn and strive for public trust and confidence. This will allow members of the legal profession to grow and develop, to nurture themselves and their families for the future, while living and working continuously in the safe, secure and stable environment of Brunei Darussalam.