By Gobind Singh

A Magistrate is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code to hold an inquiry into the circumstances leading to the death of a person.

Commonly seen to address deaths in police custody, or suspicious deaths, the task of a Magistrate would be to hold a public hearing where witnesses from whom statements have been taken by the police will be called and openly questioned.


Those with a direct interest in the outcome of these proceedings, such as victims or suspects, may engage lawyers who may appear and question these witnesses as well during the proceedings.


One thing is certain. A magistrate has wide powers but only in so far as finding the circumstances leading to and the causes of death in that particular case are concerned.


A magistrate may not go the extra distance to inquire into the propriety of the investigative procedures adopted on the deceased, as in the case of Teoh.


A Royal Commission of Inquiry on the other hand may be asked to inquire into both. This means the RCI may look into the circumstances leading to and the causes of death of a person in custody and also the sufficiency or otherwise of measures existing to protect the rights of individuals who are detained for questioning.


What comes across as strange in the decision of the cabinet is the separation of the two. If the cabinet did not feel it fit to set up a RCI, then one would fall back on an inquest. But where the cabinet decides to set up a RCI, then what is the logic behind separating the two?


Not only would there be two separate hearings held, which will involve twice the time and cost, there could be a serious problem if the findings of both were different. That would result in an absurd and highly embarrassing position for the government.