The Malaysian Legal System in Numbers

The Federal Constitution of Malaysia is the supreme law of Malaysia. It was first introduced as the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya on August 31, 1957 – Merdeka Day. Subsequently, it was introduced as the Constitution of Malaysia on Malaysia Day (September 16, 1963).

Historically, the foundation of the constitution was laid as early as 1874 when a meeting was held between the Sultan of Perak and the British under the terms of the Pangkor Engagement. It then continued to be contested and amended until it became a core element of Malaysian nation building and embraced by the citizens of Malaysia. The constitution is both foundational and fundamental for the nation and its people to continue to strive and survive together.

As the nation grows and walks through many different epochs – colonial, independence and post-independence – new yet diverse values and culture are embraced by the inhabitants. Hence, the laws and constitution as governing tools must remain relevant along with the rapid changes of the nation. Table 1 shows the number of bills passed and amended in 2017.

Over the decades, changes needed to be made to keep pace with the growth of the nation and changing circumstances such as the increasing number of judges. For instance, in both the Court of Appeal and Federal Court, the number of judges recorded up until 2017 are 37, of which 30% are female (Table 3). However, the number of female judges in Syariah Courts is still low considering its establishment in 1948 when the Federal Court ordinance separated Syariah Court from the court hierarchy (Table 4). It was not until 2016 when two women were appointed as judges of Malaysia’s Islamic Syariah High Court for the first time. The appointment corresponds to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and may help address concerns that women are not fairly treated by the Syariah Court.

To keep up with the growing number of lawyers (Table 5) and the existence of unprecedented cases such as those related to industry players, cyber-crime and child abuse, many new courts were established. In 2014 the Construction Court was formed after the country’s Construction Industry Payment and Adjudication Act (CIPAA) 2012 came into effect. The Cyber Court and Special Criminal Court, which handle cases involving sexual crimes against children, were similarly established in the past few years. There is a total of 290 courts throughout Malaysia, including High, Sessions, Magistrates and Syariah Courts (see Table 4). Sabah appears to have the highest number of courts.

In terms of the number of lawyers, there has been an inconsistent growth of registered lawyers from 2013 to 2017, with fluctuations every year. As of February 2017, Penang recorded 1,668 lawyers, putting it in fourth place (Table 5). The number of legal firms and lawyers as shown in Table 5 and Table 7 are concurrent with the level of development in the state, especially with the growth of businesses and other industrial activities.

Interestingly, the participation of women in the legal system is growing. However, according to the president of the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), Meera Samanther, while female lawyers outnumbered their male counterparts as legal assistants (Table 6), male lawyers still dominate leadership positions, even in the executive committee of Bar Councils.

Another important part of the whole Malaysian legal system is the establishment of legal aid centres to assist people who need legal representation but cannot afford the cost. This includes refugees, returned refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons who are involved in specific cases such as road accidents, money lending and adoptions. There is a total of 16 registered legal aid centres that operate throughout the peninsula, except for Sabah and Sarawak (Table 8).

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