You should probably know that Malaysia has a court system with different types of courts that handle every case under the sun. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll see someone being charged in the High Court, appealing in the Federal court, or appearing in the Magistrates’ court.
However, have you ever wondered how or who decides which cases go to which court? Is there a ballot system, lucky draw, or a first come first serve?
Well, actually, a court hierarchy exists with specific rules on what cases can be brought to which courts. For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on the civil courts system and not the criminal court system (which will be dealt with in a separate article). For reference, the civil system is basically about private law suits where you sue someone. The criminal system is when someone charged with a crime is tried in court to determine his innocence or guilt. Also, we won’t be including the Syariah or Native Courts in this article.
To kick things off…
Everything comes with a...hierarchy
The court systems are built in a hierarchal system in order to facilitate the hearing of cases and any appeals against them. Beyond having a hierarchy, the courts are also divided into courts of first instance and appellate courts.
Courts of first instance are where matters are heard for the first time.
Courts which fall under this category are the Magistrates’ Court, Sessions Court, and High Court.
Appellate courts hear matters on appeal from the courts of first instance and only have the power to listen to appeals. This means that they only listen to matters already decided instead of deciding on new points or deciding on findings of fact.
There are limited exceptions to this general rule but we will take a look at them later on in this article.
The courts which fall under this category are the High Court, Court of Appeal, and Federal Court.
Yeah, we know that the diagram doesn’t answer many questions but with that picture in mind, let’s dive into the respective jurisdictions of each court to better explain it.
Magistrates’ Court and Sessions Court
The Magistrates’ Court’s jurisdiction can be found in the Subordinate Courts’ Act 1948 (“SCA 1948”) and it is divided into First Class Magistrates and Second Class Magistrates. According to section 90 and 92 of the SCA, the First Class and Second Class Magistrates have the powers to listen to claims amounting up to RM100,000 or RM10,000 respectively. As a reminder again, this article only covers civil and not criminal cases.
Aside from that, the Magistrates also have the power to deal with what is known as small claims procedure. Avid AskLegal readers would remember the small claims procedure is basically a procedure that allows you to recover debts up to RM5,000 without a lawyer and you can read about it here.
The Sessions Court on the other hand, has a jurisdiction to listen to cases where the amount or value of the subject matter in dispute are up to RM1,000,000. However, the Sessions Court is given unlimited jurisdiction for cases involving motor-vehicle accidents, and they cannot decide on cases which involve disputes about land titles. If this sounds confusing, here are some examples:
Ali and Abu enter into a contract.
Abu breaches the contract and Ali sues him for damages amounting to RM900,000
Ali can sue Abu in the Sessions Court.
Ali was crossing the road when a car driven by Abu knocks him down.
Ali sues Abu for various claims, amounting to RM2,000,000
Ali can sue Abu in the Sessions Court
Ali owns a piece of land that Abu has stayed on for 20 years.
Ali tells Abu to move because he is a squatter.
Abu claims that Ali’s father gave permission to Abu to stay there in return for clearing the land.
Ali cannot sue Abu in the Sessions Court.
Now, if you are confused about why the Magistrates Court and Sessions Court are listed in the alternative, the answer is simple. If your claim exceeds the Magistrates’ Court’s jurisdiction, then you have to sue your opponent in the Sessions Court. The same idea applies if your claim exceeds the Session Court’s jurisdiction – you then have to sue in the High Court. The High Court is a little special because…
The High Court has unlimited power!
No, seriously. The High Court has unlimited civil jurisdiction and is technically considered “higher ranking” than the Magistrates’ Court and Sessions Court, which are both known as inferior courts. This isn’t a jab at their ego because the terms are established by our Federal Constitution. Article 121 reads:
“There shall be two High Courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction and status, namely— (a) one in the States of Malaya, which shall be known as the High Court in Malaya...and (b) one in the States of Sabah and Sarawak, which shall be known as the High Court in Sabah and Sarawak...and such inferior courts...”
Unlimited civil jurisdiction doesn’t mean that the High Court can do whatever they like. They must, of course, act in accordance with the law and pass out appropriate judgments. What unlimited civil jurisdiction means is that they don’t have a limit as to the value of claims they can decide on. If Ali wants to sue Abu for running him over with his car, setting his RM2,000,000 mansion on fire and refusing to vacate his land, he can sue Abu in the High Court.
This means that if your claim exceeds both the Magistrates and Sessions Court jurisdiction, you start your case in the High Court. This is why the High Court is a court of first instance. On the other hand, if you started your case in the Magistrates or Sessions Court, you have the right to appeal to the High Court provided you pass the requisite test for appeal (we will cover this in another article). This makes the High Court an appellate court as well.
You may have also noticed that the High Courts are split into “Malaya” and “Sabah and Sarawak”. This is because the jurisdiction is split between Peninsula Malaysia (High Court in Malaya) and East Malaysia (High Court of Sabah and Sarawak) – meaning that you cannot transfer your case from Ipoh to be heard in Kuching, for instance.
This brings us to our two last courts which are…
The purely appellate courts
Pure appellate courts mean that the Court of Appeal and Federal Court do not listen to cases brought to court for the first time. They only listen to appeals from the High Court or the Court of Appeal (for the Federal Court). This means that you can’t sue someone in the Court of Appeal or Federal Court but you can only appeal to the Court of Appeal or Federal Court after starting the court process in any of the courts we mentioned above.
For instance, if you’re bringing a fresh lawsuit against Ah Kok for scratching your car, you cannot start in the Court of Appeal or Federal Court. However, if Ah Kok isn’t happy with the Magistrates’ Court decision that he should pay you RM5,000 to fix the scratches, he can make an appeal to either of these courts.
We will cover more about the appellate process in a separate article but for now, we hope this article gave you some insight into how court systems work in Malaysia!