Court to hear on May 14 if non-Muslims can practise as syariah lawyers

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PUTRAJAYA: The Federal Court will hear an appeal on whether non-Muslim lawyers can appear in syariah courts in the Federal Territories, after a delay of more than a year.

Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria will lead a five-man bench to hear the appeal on May 14 against the Court of Appeal’s ruling in June 2013, which stated that non-Muslim lawyers were eligible to practise as syariah lawyers.

Yesterday, the bench sat and included another question to be argued — whether Rule 10 of the Rules of the Shariah Lawyers 1993 was against Articles 5, 8 and 10 of the Federal Constitution.

The Federal Court on Jan 28 last year allowed without contest a single question as to whether Rule 10, which stipulates that only Muslims could be admitted as syariah lawyers, was beyond the authority of the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993.

Any appeal before the apex court must be a novel question raised for the first time which would be of public importance.

The appeal could not be heard earlier as Datuk Sulaiman Abdullah, lawyer for the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Council, was on medical leave.

Sulaiman was present yesterday to represent his client.

Lawyer Ranjit Singh, who is appearing for respondent Victoria Jayaseele Martin, said the bench was of the opinion that it was better for the subject to also be tested against the constitution.

In a landmark ruling, a three-man appellate court on June 21, 2013, unanimously ruled that non-Muslims were eligible to practise as syariah lawyers in the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan.

Datuk Wira Abu Samah Nordin, who led the bench then, said the Federal Territories Religious Council’s refusal to process an application of a non-Muslim lawyer was an act that exceeded its legal powers.

Abu Samah said Section 59 (1) of the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993 clearly states that “any person” with sufficient knowledge in Islamic law may be appointed as a syariah lawyer.

Section 59 (2) gives the power to the council to make rules about the qualification of syariah lawyers.

“If the intention is to prohibit non-Muslims from appearing in a syariah court, it should be expressly stated in the legislation,” he said in allowing an appeal by lawyer Victoria.

But, the council only processed the applications of Muslim lawyers.

Abu Samah said Victoria’s application to appear in the religious court was not given due process by the council.

Victoria filed a judicial review application in 2010 and sought a certiorari order to compel the council to allow her to practise as a syariah lawyer in Kuala Lumpur.

She also wanted the court to issue a declaration that Rule 10, which allows only Muslims to be accepted as syariah lawyers, is against the Federal Constitution.

The High Court dismissed her application in 2011. — The Malaysian Insider

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 5, 2015.