In the governing framework of Malaysia, three critical pillars exist: the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches. The judiciary is the court system that decides legal disputes, defends the law, and applies it in legal cases. In every nation, the judiciary plays a crucial role in deciphering and administering the law and resolving disputes between the citizens as between the citizens and the state.
The judicial system is the most expensive machine ever invented to discover what happened and what to do about it.
– Irving R. Kaufman
Tasked with the duty to ensure equal justice and fairness, the judiciary consists of various court levels, from the Magistrate Court to the Federal Court. The hierarchy of Malaysian courts is shown below, with each court falling into two categories: superior or subordinate.
Courts are organised in a hierarchical structure, as seen above, with each level having authority over a different set of matters. This article will dissect the FIVE TIERS of Malaysian courts, looking at their respective functions, authorities, and areas of jurisdiction.
Jurisdiction: An Overview
The term “jurisdiction” describes the scope of the court’s authority and the types of cases it can hear. For example, the Federal Constitution places several restrictions and limitations on the High Court’s jurisdiction; At the same time, it has unlimited monetary jurisdictions. Still, it cannot adjudicate on matters within the exclusive power of the Syariah Courts or on matters touching upon Islamic laws and religions.
Conversely, the authority of subordinate courts is influenced by their geographic and monetary jurisdiction. Monetary jurisdiction refers to the maximum damages a court can award, irrespective of the amount sought in the suit. A court’s authority is also limited by its geographical or territorial jurisdiction. i.e., A Kuala Lumpur Magistrate Court lacks the authority to hear and decide on a case that originated in Sabah and Sarawak (East of Malaysia). If a court proceeds to listen to the dispute, the entire proceeding could be deemed unlawful and void, and any judgment rendered is subject to being set aside.
There are two classes of magistrates- First-class magistrates and Second-class magistrates. All proceedings and civil suits where the amount in dispute or value of the subject matter does not exceed RM100,00.00 shall be tried by a First-Class Magistrate Court under Section 90 of the Subordinate Courts Act 1948 (“SCA”).
Section 92 of the SCA restricts the civil jurisdiction of the Second-Class Magistrate court to cases where the plaintiff seeks to recover a debt or subject matter not exceeding RM10,000.00.
Section 85 of SCA grants a First-Class Magistrate Court the authority to hear all crimes for which the maximum jail time provided by law does not exceed ten years or is punishable by a fine. The exact section also confers this court to try offences under Section 392 (robbery) and Section 457 (house-trespass or housebreaking) of the Penal Code.
The following are the maximum sentences that a First-Class Magistrate Court can impose:
- Five (5) years of imprisonment.
- A fine of up to RM10,000.00.
- Whipping of ten (10) strokes; or
- Any sentence combining the sentences mentioned above.
Under Section 88 of SCA, a Second-Class Magistrate Court shall have the jurisdiction to try cases in which the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by the law does not exceed twelve (12) years, as well as those offences that are punishable by fine only. The SCA also gives this court the authority to impose any penalty not exceeding six (6) months in prison, a fine not exceeding RM1,000.00 or any sentence combining these two.
Section 65(1) of the SCA describes the civil jurisdiction of a Session Court. Per this section, a Session Court is given the following authority:
- Unlimited jurisdiction to try all civil actions and suits in motor vehicle and landlord-tenant disputes where the amount of dispute or value of the subject matter does not surpass RM1 million.
- All civil proceedings and lawsuits within the Sessions Court’s jurisdiction for the specific performance or rescission of contracts or the cancellation or rectification of instruments.
As per Sections 63 and 64 of SCA, the Sessions Court has the authority to try all criminal offences other than those that are punishable by death and to impose any sentence permitted by law, except for the death penalty.
The Courts of Judicature Act 1964 (“CJA”) addresses the authority and jurisdiction of superior courts in Malaysia. According to the CJA, a High Court has no limit on the damages it can award. If a party wishes to file a claim with a value exceeding RM1 million, they may do so in the High Court. A litigant may also appeal the decision of a subordinate court to the High Court. However, no civil appeal may be brought to High Court if the quantum of the case is less than RM10,000.00
In addition, High Court has exclusive jurisdiction over the following cases:
- Divorce and matrimonial proceedings for non-Muslims.
- Matters relating to bankruptcy or winding-up of companies;
- Appointment of guardians of infants; or
- Grant of probates of wills, testaments, letters of administration of estates of the deceased person.
To determine the branch of the High Court, it is necessary to consider Section 23(1) of CJA. This section defines the territorial jurisdiction of the High Court, which provides that the High Court shall have jurisdiction to hear all matters:
- Where the cause of action arose; or
- Where the defendant or one of several defendants reside or has their place of business: or
- Where the facts on which the proceedings are based exist or are alleged to have occurred.
The High Court has wider jurisdictions and can hear more complex cases. The Magistrate’s and Sessions Court play important roles in hearing less complex cases and providing access to justice for all Malaysians.
The High Courts have the authority to try any crime, including those that are punishable by death and those above the jurisdiction of the Magistrates and Sessions Court. Criminal appeals from a subordinate court may also be heard in the High Court.
Court of Appeal
In any civil suit, whether presented in the exercise of its original jurisdiction or its appellate jurisdiction, the Court of Appeal has the authority to hear and decide appeals from any judgment or order of any High Court across Malaysia, subject to the terms and conditions under which the request was brought. This is specified explicitly under Article 121 (1B) of the Federal Constitution.
The Court of Appeal has the jurisdiction to hear and determine any criminal appeal against any decision made by the High Court.
Federal Court: The Apex Court of Malaysia
Federal Court (“Mahkamah Persekutuan”) is the apex court in Malaysia’s court hierarchy; hence it acts as the final court of appeal for civil and criminal matters. It has the following jurisdictions:
- To determine the validity of any law made by Parliament or the legislature or any states;
- To hear disputes on any other issues between the states or between the state and the Federal government;
- To determine any question arises before another court as to the effect of any provision under the Federal Court;
- Yang Di-Pertuan Agong may refer to Federal Court for its opinion or guidance regarding the implications of any constitutional provision that has come up or that he believes will come up in the future, and the Federal Court will provide its judgment in open court of any question submitted to it; or
- To hear civil and criminal appeals from the Court of Appeal and High Court.