On Appealing Against Interlocutory Decisions

During the opening of the 2020 legal year, the Chief Justice of Malaysia, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, announced that the Judiciary was looking to substantially limit civil appeals in interlocutory cases:

“28. … Trivial appeals tend to have a “snowball” effect on the efficient disposal of trials as they clog up the system. For example, many cases in the High Court are aging because a single case has so many interlocutory appeals pending at the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court. This is a common feature throughout the country.

29. Applications for summary judgment and striking out are one such example. If the application is dismissed there appears to be no prejudice to the applicant as the case will proceed on the merits. The proposal to limit appeals in this respect is to avoid delays in the full trial of the action. Although at the discussion stage, there was significant resistance from both the Bar and Chambers to the introduction of this new mechanism, the proposal has already been approved at the Rules Committee stage and it only remains to be formalised.”[1] (emphasis mine)

The learned Chief Justice’s proposal is consistent with the Federal Court’s past decisions that the definition of ‘decision’ found in Section 3 of the Courts of Judicature Act 1964 (“CJA 1964“) has to be read together with the relevant provision in the CJA 1964 on appeals to the Court of Appeal.

In summary, the legal position as it stands is that a ruling made in the course of a trial or hearing of any cause or matter which does not finally dispose of the rights of the parties is not appealable.

In Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim v Public Prosecutor [2010] 6 MLJ 585 (“Anwar Ibrahim”), the Appellant had sought to appeal against a ruling made by the trial judge in the course of a criminal trial.[2]

The trial judge had dismissed the Appellant’s application for the statement of the complainant, recorded under s 112 of the Criminal Procedure Code, to be produced for examination by the Appellant.[3]

A 3-man panel of the Federal Court dismissed the appeal on the basis that:

“The underlying reason behind the amendment to the definition of ‘decision’ in s 3 of the CJA, introduced by Amendment Act A1031 of 1998, which came into effect on 31 July 1998 is to stop parties from stalling a trial before the trial court by filing appeal after appeal on rulings made by the trial court in the course of a trial.”[4]

Shortly after that, the Federal Court in Karpal Singh a/l Ram Singh v Public Prosecutor [2012] 5 MLJ 293; [2012] 5 CLJ 537 (“Karpal Singh”) took the same position and held the following:

“A scrutiny of the scope of the term ‘decision’ in s 3 of the CJA reveals that its definition does not extend to the types of ‘judgments or orders’ which can be termed as ‘interlocutory’. In other words, if a judgment or order is not final, in the sense that it does not finally dispose of the rights of the parties in the trial, then it would not fall within the definition of the word ‘decision’ under section 3 of the CJA and thus not appealable …”[5] (emphasis mine)

The Federal Court went on to hold that a party dissatisfied with a ruling made in relation to an interlocutory application is not deprived of his/her right to appeal as he/she could appeal against the ruling after the trial.[6]

In Ahmad Zubair @ Ahmad Zubir bin Hj Murshid v Public Prosecutor [2014] 6 MLJ 831 (“Ahmad Zubair”), the Appellant’s appeal was unanimously struck out by the Federal Court. In delivering the decision of the court, Raus Sharif PCA held:

“From the above explanation given by this court in the case of Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim v Public Prosecutor it is obvious that parliament is not oblivious to appeals which tend to stall proceedings and delay speedy disposal of cases. The new definition of the word decision in the amended s 3 of the CJA which we have laid emphasis to in the preceding paragraph does not include a judgment, order or ruling which does not finally dispose of the rights of the parties on the matters in dispute. With the amended s 3 of the CJA, appeals filed based on technical rulings which are interlocutory in nature are now things of the past. Such appeals are incompetent to be laid before the appellate court as it is clearly precluded by law.”[7] (emphasis mine)

Granted, Anwar Ibrahim, Karpal Singh, and Ahmad Zubair are criminal cases.[8]

In the context of civil cases, the Federal Court in Kempadang Bersatu Sdn Bhd v Perkayuan OKS No 2 Sdn Bhd [2019] 4 MLJ 614 (“Kempadang”) iterated that “Subsection 67(1) of the CJA must be read together with s 3 of the CJA.”[9]

Additionally, and more pertinently, the Federal Court observed that:

“… at what juncture a ruling is issued plays a vital role in determining whether such an order is a ruling within the context of s 3. There must be a trial in existence or a hearing and that the order is issued in the course of that trial or hearing. Secondly, the ruling must not have the effect of disposing the final rights of the parties.”[10]

If both elements are present then such a ruling would not be appealable.

In applying the two elements, a judge’s decision to dismiss a striking out application:

i. would have been made in the course of a hearing – namely the hearing of the striking out application; and

ii. does not have the effect of disposing the final rights of the parties – the matter would proceed to trial, where the Defendant(s) would still have an opportunity to oppose the Plaintiff’s/Plaintiffs’ case.

Thus, such a decision should not be appealable.

Zainun Ali FCJ, however, cautioned that not all orders given by the court pursuant to interlocutory applications filed by parties in the course of trial are non-appealable.[11]

Her Ladyship referred to the Court of Appeal’s decision in Mulpha International Bhd & Ors v Mula Holdings Sdn Bhd & Ors and other appeals [2017] MLJU 445 (“Mulpha International”) whereby it was held that the decision of the trial judge dismissing an application to strike out pleadings was not a ruling within the context of s 3 of the CJA although such application was filed in the course of the trial.[12]

The Court of Appeal in Mulpha International narrowly defined ‘ruling’ to mean any ruling made in the course of a trial upon objection raised by any party to the proceedings.[13]

In Asia Pacific Higher Learning Sdn Bhd v Majlis Perubatan Malaysia & Anor [2020] 2 MLJ 1 (“Asia Pacific Higher Learning”), the Federal Court agreed with the Federal Court in Kempadang that the word ‘decision’ in Section 3 of the CJA 1964 should be read together with Section 67(1) of the CJA 1964.[14]

The Federal Court also held that:

“The correct approach … is to read s 68 with the definition of ‘decision’ in s 3 of the Act in stating the matters that are not appealable to the Court of Appeal in civil cases. When these words are read with s 67 of the Act, such a ‘decision’, ‘judgment’ or ‘order’ which falls within the exclusionary words in the definition of the word ‘decision’ is without any doubt not appealable to the Court of Appeal.”[15]

Unfortunately, it was not discussed in Asia Pacific Higher Learning whether Mulpha International’s narrow definition of ‘ruling’ (which appeared to be cited approvingly in Kempadang) was correct.

If Mulpha International’s narrow definition of ‘ruling’ is correct, it would mean that decisions to dismiss pre-trial interlocutory applications would not amount to a ‘ruling’ and would thus be appealable regardless of whether it finally disposes of the rights of parties.


The Aftermath Of The Federal Court’s Decision

The 23rd of June 2014 will go down as one of the darkest days in Malaysia’s history. On that very day, the Federal Court (Malaysia’s apex court) decided not to grant the Catholic church leave for appeal on the use of the word “Allah” for its weekly newsletter publication called ‘The Herald’

The whole saga began in 2007 when the Home Ministry of Malaysia decided to issue a ban prohibiting The Herald from using the word “Allah” in its newsletter. The Herald had been peacefully doing so since 1995

The Catholic church was in a state of shock as the weekly publication was meant for internal circulation, thus dispelling any fears that it would be used to propagate to Muslims

The High Court in 2009 ruled in favor of the Catholic church and quashed the prohibition. Subsequently the government appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the High Court

The Catholic church exercised their legal right to further pursue the matter up the hierarchy of courts but was turned down by the Federal Court. 4 out of the 7-man bench decided against allowing the leave for appeal

The leave for appeal is basically a permission to appeal a previous judgement/ruling. Without the leave for appeal, one is stuck with the decision of the earlier court

So what is the aftermath of the decision? It can’t all be that bad because Putrajaya has assured that the decision is only applicable to The Herald and would have no effect whatsoever on Christians that practice their faith in the national language

Putrajaya’s assurance counts for nothing as even their 10 point solution is not legally binding whereas the Court of Appeal’s decision is binding precedent and has to be followed by courts of equal and lower status

The Federal Court’s refusal to grant The Herald leave for appeal means that the Court of Appeal’s decision is good law. The obiter dicta (persuasive precedent) is that the word “Allah” is not an integral part of the Christian faith

Obiter dicta can crystallize into ratio decidendi (binding precedent). For example, if a court in a future case (e.g. the 321 Bibles seized by JAIS) decides to use that “mere observation” made by the Court of Appeal as the basis for its decision, the mere observation becomes a binding precedent.

Tell me again how that legal principle will only be bound to The Herald? From then onwards, whenever a case appears before the courts regarding the use of “Allah” in any Christian publication, all lower courts will be bound by the decision of the court which based its decision on the Court of Appeal’s obiter dicta

This has major ramifications on the rights of Christians to practice and profess their religion as per Article 11 of the Federal Constitution. Christians that practice their faith in Bahasa Malaysia will be unable to read the Bible in the language they have used all this while

That is only the beginning of the aftermath. Before we know it, the holy book of the Sikhs will also be seized and prohibited because of the use of the word “Allah”

What is most saddening is that the highest court of the land (i.e. the Federal Court) which has the ability to remedy this wrong refused to get involved. May we never forget this dark moment!

*Read it also at The Malay Mail Online