The time I saw a law book fly

It happened one morning in the Jalan Raja Sessions Courts. I was in my early years of practice; second or third year. The judge that presided over the court I appeared in was known for his eccentric and erratic behaviour. He would try to sell his magistrates and sessions court decisions to any unwitting and soft-hearted lawyers. His desire to distribute his trove of treasured judicial thoughts however lost out to his desire for compensation for imparting them. They were not cheap, as I recall, especially for new lawyers like us.

I thought the attempt tragic. A Magistrate or Sessions Court’s judgment are worthless as precedent, unless affirmed by a High Court and Court of Appeal that wrote no grounds. His judgments were over matters mundane and the writing torturous. He was not some wise guru judge that got lost in the system and was dispensing wisdom in pithy profound written judgments in the subordinate courts about life, law and litigation that would go on to influence and revolutionize the Malaysian judiciary’s jurisprudential paradigm for the next five decades. It was nothing like that. There was no value to them. One did not get it with a classy brass clip to bind the individual judgments, which were hastily stapled, together.

He was not discrete about it either. We didn’t mind so much when he announced its availability from the bench in open court. What we dreaded was being called into chambers and being hard sold the collection of his greatest hits. We newer lawyers were particularly vulnerable to this. I escaped a few times on the pretext I didn’t have enough cash on me, which actually was true, so it actually wasn’t a pretext. My salary and expenses back then was like warm rain on hot asphalt which evaporated on contact. Still feels like it, except the asphalt is now on fire and there is less rain.

My matter before the judge had to do with a goods sold and delivered claim. There were two applications fixed for hearing that morning. The first was the Plaintiff’s summary judgment application, which I was moving. The second was the Defendants’ application to transfer the case to another state. The first order of the day was to decide which application was going to be heard first.

As someone that batted for both sides of the debt claim game, I knew the transfer application was strategic. It was meant to delay the inevitable judgment. Back then, if you obtained a transfer order of the case to another state, you would have bought the case at least a year’s worth of delay, often more. I once had a case that was transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching and took three years and one file reconstruction before it made it across. The plaintiff or the plaintiff’s lawyer’s may lose interest; if you were lucky the case would die a silent forgotten death in the purgatory between courts.

The judge stood down our case after it was first called up since it was a disputed matter. The court’s usual order of business is to first deal with case managements, uncontested applications and deliver decisions before hearing disputed matters for the rest of the day. He called up our case after settling the morning’s first order of business.

“There are two applications fixed for hearing, I want you to address me on which should be heard first. I don’t want you to go into the merits of your applications. No referring to the application or affidavits. Just confine the arguments to which should be heard first and why,” directed the judge. “Plaintiff.”

“Tuan Hakim, I have three arguments. First, we filed our application first. Second, our application is for summary judgment. If Tuan Hakim decides it in our favour, the transfer application is academic. Third, there is no prejudice to the defendants if our application is heard first. They have retained lawyers in Kuala Lumpur to act for them. I ask for the summary judgment application to be heard first.”

The opposing lawyer was a chinese lady who was of the same vintage as me, if not a few months ahead. She got to her feet.

“Tuan Hakim. The defendant’s submission is that the transfer application is to be heard first before the summary judgment application because it is the latest application filed. Further, it is better if the other court hears the application instead of this court because if the summary judgment application is dismissed, it will can go on to hear the trial,” she droned on then suddenly quickened, “Some more, all the defendants are in Ipoh…..”

I stood up.

“Tuan Hakim. With respect, I object.”

“Why?”

I was taken aback. Didn’t he just say we were not supposed to do that?

“My learned friend is referring to the facts in her transfer application. Tuan Hakim said we are not supposed to do that.”

“Ha? Okay, no referring to your application, counsel.”

“Very well, Tuan Hakim. As I said just now, the defendants are in Ipoh, the goods is bought in Ipoh, the delivery is in Ipoh…”

“Tuan, Hakim, I am sorry, I have to object.”

“What is it now?”

“My learned friend continues to refer to the facts in her transfer application. She is not supp…”

“Encik Fahri, she’s making her point. I gave you the earlier objection already. Now you want another one? Enough lah. Let the girl finish her point lah. Sit down.”

I sat down.

“Thank you, Tuan Hakim,” she said with a hint of smugness. “All of the events is happened in Ipoh, Tuan Hakim. So the case should be heard there. Tuan Hakim should leave it to the judge in Ipoh to decision. My next point, Tuan Hakim, is that the plaintiff’s summary judgment has no merit. If Tuan Hakim were to ..”

I jumped up.

“Tuan Hakim! I object to this line of submission. My learned friend is dealing with the merits of the application.”

“She did not lah, Encik Fahri. She just said your application has no merit. She has not submitted on it. She didn’t say no triable issue or defence of merits. Isn’t that right, Ms Chong?”

“Yes, Tuan Hakim.”

“Okay, objection overruled. Please go on. And no more objections from you, Encik Fahri. Just sit down.”

“Thank you, Tuan Hakim. It is difficult to to submit with so many interruptions from my learned friend.”

I hate it when lawyers turn into milkers.

“As I was saying, Tuan Hakim, the summary judgment has no merit. The defendants is disputing the deliveries. Many of the delivery orders don’t have the acceptance chop. If I can refer Tuan Hakim, the plaintiff’s supporting affidavit, at…”

“Tuan Hakim, I have to object. She is now referring to the affidavits!”

“Encik Fahri!” the judge shouted. “I told you sit down and shut up already! You don’t understand English is it? Your colleague here is submitting and you keep objecting and interrupting at everything she is saying. She didn’t object when you were submitting. Now when it’s her turn, you keep objecting. You don’t know how to behave in court ah?”

“But, Tuan Ha….”

“Quiet!! That’s why lah these days. All you young fellas coming to court don’t know any court decorum. You think what? This is a TV show ah? Huh? Sikit-sikit, object! Object! That is not real life lah, okay, Encik Fahri.”

He picked up a book to his right and then held it up. It was Gurdial Singh Nijar’s book on Civil Trial Advocacy. It was in paperback format. I knew the book. I knew the author. He was a good friend of my father’s. He gave me an autographed copy of it when he came over for a visit. I devoured it soon after he gave it to me.

“You see this book, Encik Fahri? It’s a book by Gurdial Singh Nijar. He is a senior and experienced lawyer. It’s about how to do civil cases. People like you should read his book. Then you will know how to behave in court!”

“Tua….”

“I said, shut up!” he shouted.

Suddenly, everything slowed down to a snail’s pace. I saw his right arm lift up the book towards the back of his head, his folded right arm parallel to his right shoulder before he launched his arm forward. The book left his outstretched fingers, like a pigeon desperate for flight. Time slowed down. The room suddenly drained of sound and I heard the strains of Johann Strauss II’s the Blue Danube Waltz gained prominence in my head. The swirl of the music matched the spin of the book as it hurtled across the judge’s desk above the interpreter’s head and her desk. I could see the book pages edges trembling in flight as it spun horizontally through the air.

There is usually a gap between the interpreter’s table, which resides in front and below the judge’s desk, and the first row of tables for the lawyers. It was when the comet of a book entered this area that its descent trajectory began. I tracked the book as it continued to spin and then crash heavily onto the table and skidded until it stopped about an arm’s length from me. I did not react and stood still in silence the whole time. I was nonplussed.

“Ha! Take down the title. Go and buy and read it. Then you won’t be so biadap next time! We will hear the transfer application first.,” he barked. “Give them a date,” he said to the court interpreter who duly obliged.

I went back to the office livid. My face stung from the public dressing down by the judge, which I felt completely unjustified. She broke his bloody instructions but I got a book thrown at me for pointing it out. It was absurd! I burst into my father’s room, as I was wont to do at such times, and roared my complaint to him. He listened calmly. After I finished telling him about it and calmed down a little, he buzzed my boss, Izzat, over and told him about what happened.

“What kind of judge is this in court? How can he be throwing books at lawyers? I think this should be reported to the chief justice for disciplinary action.”

“Ah. I know that he is out of line, but let’s give him a chance to explain himself. I have appeared before him before. Let me talk to him. If he wants to justify his actions, then we can consider that. What do you think, Fahri? I will call his office now to make an appointment. We go and see him tomorrow.”

“Fine.”

Izzat and I were outside the judge’s chambers at eight in the morning the next day.

“I will go in first to see the judge and talk with him. If it goes well, I will call you in. Okay?”

“Okay.”

He went in. I sat outside fiddling with the day’s files, re-reading the cause papers. I looked at my watch and noticed it was eight thirty. What the heck was going on in there, I wondered. And just at that moment, I heard the door knob click open. Izzat emerged with a smile and came over to me.

“The judge wants to apologize. He’s feeling bad about it. Come.”

I walked into his room. I had been there before. He was seated behind his desk and had a bashful manner about him. There were two chairs in front of his desk. Izzat invited me to sit on the one to his left.

“Good morning, Encik Fahri.”

“Good morning, Tuan Hakim.”

“Thank you for coming down this morning with Encik Izzat. I want to apologize for shouting and throwing the book at you yesterday. It was, it was wrong of me. I am sorry. I was having a bad day yesterday and wasn’t completely myself. Heh. You know me kan Encik Fahri? I am not usually like that, kan?”

That was true, which was why the whole occasion came as such a shock.

“Thank you Tuan Hakim. I accept your apology. Yes, usually, Tuan is more… jovial in orientation.”

“Kan?! See, I told Izzat also, I am usually not like that. That’s why lah. All I can say is I am sorry, yah, Fahri.”

“Water under the bridge, Tuan.”

“Okay, let’s not take up anymore of Tuan’s time. It’s almost nine o’clock. Thank you for resolving this Tuan. I appreciate it. Have a good day,” Izzat said and made to get up.

“Thank you, Tuan.”

When Izzat and I headed out for breakfast nearby he drew closer to me and asked, “You know why he was in such a bad mood yesterday?”

“No.”

“The list of JCs (judicial commissioners) was out yesterday. His name was not on it. That was his last chance. He will now retire as a sessions. That’s why.”

“I see. But why should he be on it? There’s nothing outstanding about him.”

“He is one of the most senior sessions judges in KL. But that is not enough. It is not common for Sessions Judges to be appointed a JC, you have to be very good.”

I was back in the judge’s court again several weeks later for a different matter. It was a mention. It was one of those long cause list days. There was a ways to go until my case was called up. I occupied myself but it must have looked as if I was also paying attention to the proceedings because suddenly I caught the judge say the last few words, “… isn’t that right, Encik Fahri?”

I quickly took stock of the scene. I looked about and saw two young lawyers on their feet. It must be their matter that was going on. They looked like they were being given a lecture for omitting or failing to do something. One of them had their head hung down. The judge must have just pointed out an elementary point of law to them and wanted me to support the fact that this was obvious, thus emphasizing how unprepared they were.

I duly obliged and rushed in where angels fear to tread – the unknown.

I stood up.

“Of course, Tuan Hakim. I think that’s elementary,” I said in utter ignorance and sat down.

“You see? Elementary, as Encik Fahri has said! And you don’t know this?” and on he went giving a lecture to those two sorry fellas and left me alone.

Since that day, I have seen books fall off tables, car backseats; and even used as paperweights and doorstoppers, but I never saw a law book fly again. And that’s okay, because it is our arguments that are meant to fly, not the law books.

4 thoughts on “The time I saw a law book fly”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this descriptive piece! It got me laughing too. I love the style of your writing Mr Fahri. Hoping that you will be writing an autobiography someday! 🙂

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  2. who is the Jackass? reminds me of Wan Adnan in the 1980s at the PJ Sessions Court. The worst egghead on the bench! he was put in cold storage till retirement.

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  3. Reminds me of another jackass called Wan Adnan -Sessions Court, Petaling Jaya. His style was to berate lawyers and parties to the dispute daily. I always wondered where how a Buffon like him could sit on the bench as a decision maker. He was put in cold storage after he told an expatriate ( who complained to CJ) that he would knock, knock, knock his head ! The complainant was actually Mr. Knock.

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  4. I can’t for the life of me remember his name now. I know my contemporaries prowling the KL courts then remember him. He was generally alright. Not as harsh as the judge you mentioned. His lectures weren’t as cutting as some of the others I remember. I’d like to think the incident I reminisced about was a one-off.

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