The reasons given by Attorney-General (AG) Tommy Thomas in his media release dated May 28, 2019, explaining the revocation of the services of lawyer Syazlin Mansor in representing the housing and local government ministry and the fire and rescue department in the inquest into the death of fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim raise more doubts and questions than answers.
This is especially since it was done in a high-handed manner, after 36 days of Syazlin being involved in the inquest without objection by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). The objection only came after she called senior forensic pathology consultant Shahrom Abd Wahid as an expert witness who testified that scientific evidence pointed to the conclusion that Adib was indeed murdered in the Seafield temple riots.
The interest of all parties in an inquest is to find the truth. An inquest is not a criminal trial, for there is no prosecution and there is no defence. Likewise, there will be no winning or losing party at the end of the proceeding. Therefore, the claim made by Thomas that Syazlin would be in a position of conflict of interest if she were to continue representing all three parties, namely the ministry, the fire department and the family of Adib, because “the interests of these parties may conflict”, is clearly misguided and has no basis under the law.
While the source of power to establish an inquest is derived from Section 339 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), the procedures governing the proceeding are spelt out in te Practice Direction No. 2 of the Judiciary dated April 8, 2014. There, Paragraph B of Enclosure A clearly states that “there are no ‘parties’ to an inquest” while Paragraph E stresses the “inquisitorial” nature of inquests, not adversarial. In fact, our Court of Appeal, in the case of Teoh Meng Kee v Public Prosecutor  5 MLJ, summed up the role of those involved in the proceeding as merely to assist the coroner’s court in a fact-finding mission, and nothing else.
Save for the coroner at the end of the proceeding, it is not for any of those involved in the fact-finding mission to take any position concerning the facts of the case. Therefore, the complaint raised by Thomas that “Syazlin took an active part in the inquest, often contradicting the positions [the AGC’s] DPPs have taken, thus causing embarrassment in her capacity as the ministry’s lawyer”, is simply untenable. The DPPs and the AGC should not, in the first place, prematurely take any position with regards to the cause of death, whether by accident or homicide, before the proceeding ends.
If the DPPs and AGC have already taken a position as to what caused the death of Adib, there would be no reason to proceed with the inquest since the very reason that an inquest is called is because the cause of death is unknown. Therefore, whatever theories there are concerning the cause of death must be allowed to be presented in full in the course of the proceeding, and it is highly unbecoming for the AG to fault Syazlin’s active role in questioning the witnesses to test the veracity and falsity of their testimonies. Such an active role should instead be commended, because that is exactly what is expected of every advocate and solicitor and every officer of the court – to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour.
Those who follow the proceedings of the inquest would notice that Syazlin represented both the ministry and the fire department well, as reflected by the statement issued by the political secretary to the housing minister dated May 28, 2019, which expressed the ministry’s gratitude for her excellent service that was rendered pro bono. One would also note that in the course of the proceeding, expert witness Shahrom pointed out many loopholes, inadequacies and half-hearted work in the investigation, and suggested that the AGC consider instructing that further investigations be held so as to tighten up the case. This power to instruct further investigation is provided for under Section 339(2) of the CPC.
But all these, and the rule of law, would only have meaning if the AG and his office have an open mind instead of being all too hasty to conclude that Adib was not murdered, just so that the possible murderers could be exonerated.
It is concerning enough that we have an AG who is making a travesty of our justice system. It is even more worrying that we have an AG who is so ignorant of the law that he cannot even discern the difference between a fact-finding mission on the one hand and a trial on the other.
Aidil Khalid is a practising lawyer and a member of the Concerned Lawyers for Justice.