The Significance of Nik Elin’s Case for Constitutional Challenges of Syariah Criminal Provisions

The Significance of Nik Elin’s Case for Constitutional Challenges of Syariah Criminal Provisions

On 9th February 2024, the majority of the Federal Court in Nik Elin Zurina binti Nik Abdul Rashid & Anor v Kerajaan Negeri Kelantan [Federal Court Petition No. BKA-2-05/2022(D)] [“Nik Elin”] held that the following provisions in Kelantan’s Syariah Criminal Code (1) Enactment 2019 are void:

“… Sections 11, 14, 16, 17, 31, 34, 36, 37(1)(b), 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 47 and 48 …”[1]

(collectively referred to as the “Impugned Provisions”)

Floodgates?

Some quarters have claimed inter alia that Nik Elin’s case is significant as it would open the door to similar legal challenges in relation to Syariah criminal provisions in other states.[2]

At the outset, it is important to note that it is not novel for the constitutionality of Syariah criminal provisions to be the subject of legal challenge.

Pre-Nik Elin, there were recent appellate decisions regarding the constitutionality of Syariah criminal provisions.

The constitutionality of Section 66A of the Administration of the Religion of Islam (State of Selangor) Enactment 2003 was challenged and the Federal Court in SIS Forum (M) v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor (Majlis Agama Islam Selangor, intervener) [2022] 2 MLJ 356 [“SIS Forum”] ruled in 2022 that the provision was “unconstitutional and void, as it is a provision which the [Selangor State Legislative Assembly] has no power to make.”[3]

In Iki Putra bin Mubarrak v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor & Anor [2021] 2 MLJ 323 [“Iki Putra”], the Federal Court held in 2021 that Section 28 of the Shariah Criminal Offences (Selangor) Enactment 1995 “… is inconsistent with the [Federal Constitution] and is therefore void …”[4]

The constitutionality of Section 23 of the Syariah Criminal Procedure Enactment 2003 was also the subject of legal challenge not too long ago. In 2022, the High Court ruled that the provision was unconstitutional for being inconsistent and ultra vires the Federal Constitution.[5] The High Court’s decision was later reversed on appeal to the Court of Appeal.[6]

It remains to be seen whether Nik Elin’s case will be a catalyst for further similar legal challenges, or whether Nik Elin merely joins a list of successful challenges to the constitutionality of Syariah criminal provisions.

Substantive Test

In terms of the substantive test, the majority of the Federal Court in Nik Elin’s case merely reiterated the established legal position that:

(a) There are certain matters within Parliament’s legislative power/jurisdiction and State Assemblies cannot legislate on those matters, and vice versa:

“… except for matters that fall within the Concurrent List, when the two Lists (Federal and State) are understood and applied correctly, both Parliament and the State Legislatures cannot then ordinarily legislate on matters that fall within the purview of the other.”[7]

(b) The pith and substance doctrine/test, as espoused in Mamat bin Daud & Ors v Government of Malaysia [1988] 1 MLJ 119 (SC), applied:

“It is not the outward appearance of the law in question and the words it uses that matter, rather the law must be examined as a whole to ascertain whether it deals, in pith and substance, with a subject-matter upon which the body making it has the power to enact in accordance with the Legislative Lists.”[8]

Nik Elin’s case is not a game changer on the substantive test for constitutional challenges on Syariah criminal provisions as Nik Elin’s case essentially reiterated the legal approach in Iki Putra and SIS Forum.[9]

Locus Standi

On another hand, Nik Elin’s case is significant as the Petitioners were allowed to challenge the constitutionality of the Impugned Provisions despite the absence of any real and actual controversy affecting the Petitioners’ rights [“Lack-of-Locus-Standi Argument”].

For example, the Petitioners in Nik Elin’s case (unlike in Iki Putra) were not charged with committing any offence under the Impugned Provisions.

The Lack-of-Locus-Standi Argument was the main reason for Abdul Rahman bin Sebli CJSS’ dissenting judgment in Nik Elin’s case.[10]

Dr. Hamid Sultan bin Abu Backer, a former Court of Appeal judge, shares Abdul Rahman bin Sebli CJSS’ views on the Lack-of-Locus-Standi Argument in Nik Elin’s case.[11]

On the issue of locus standi, the majority of the Federal Court in Nik Elin went so far as to say that:

All citizens (and in some cases all persons) are entitled to rely on the FC for protection and to approach the Federal Court for competency challenge under Articles 4(4) and 128 of the Federal Constitution.”[12] (Emphasis mine)

Nik Elin’s case, if not successfully reviewed by the Federal Court pursuant to Rule 137 of the Rules of the Federal Court 1995, would have notably expanded the test for locus standi for constitutional challenges under Articles 4(4) and 128 of the Federal Constitution.

(more…)