July 21 decision on Najib’s bid for Queen’s Counsel in SRC International appeal

(MMO) – The High Court has fixed July 21 to decide on Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s application for Queen’s Counsel Jonathan James Laidlaw to represent him in the final appeal against his conviction of misappropriating RM42 million belonging to SRC International Sdn Bhd.

High Court judge Datuk Ahmad Kamal Md Shahid fixed the date after hearing arguments from lawyers representing Briton Laidlaw, the Malaysian Bar, the Attorney General’s Chambers, Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee, and prosecutors involved in the SRC International trial this morning.

During today’s hearing, all but Laidlaw’s counsel were unanimous in their objection to Laidlaw’s application to be admitted on an ad-hoc basis to become the lead counsel in Najib’s appeal.

According to Najib’s legal team from Messrs Shafee & Co and Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Laidlaw is said to “possess special qualifications, experience and expertise which is not available” among lawyers in Malaysia for the case.

One of the reasons for Laidlaw’s application was stated as being that Najib’s SRC appeal at the Federal Court “will involve serious, complex and/or novel issues related to several branches of criminal and civil laws, practice and evidence, the constitutional rights of the appellant, the conduct of proceedings by the prosecution, the adjudication of criminal cases by a trial court and the administration of a Criminal Justice system”.

What the objectors argued

Ad-hoc prosecutor, Datuk V Sithambaram — who is leading the prosecution in Najib’s SRC International case — told the court Laidlaw does not possess special qualification for the latter to be admitted as required under Section 18(1) of the Legal Profession Act.

Sithambaram also told the court Najib’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee has not proven that local advocates and solicitors were incapable of handling complex issues and legal questions in the appeal of the SRC case in the Federal Court.

“He (Laidlaw) is a brilliant man, but we don’t need him here to argue. If we have to deal with an issue that arises in any of our cases, we can do research on foreign case laws and cite them in our submissions.

“Does that mean every time we are confronted with a novel issue in any of our cases we have to pause it and apply for a QC to come in?” he asked.

Separately, lawyer Datuk Bastian Vendargon who represented the Malaysian Bar argued that Laidlaw was not familiar with Malaysian law as the latter has not provided evidence of having experiences in the legal issues pertaining to the SRC International charges.

Verdargon also cited a similar case involving Cherie Blair QC (known professionally as Cherie Booth) whose service was engaged for commercial dispute and bid for ad-hoc admission was turned down.

In a unanimous decision, the Federal Court dismissed Booth’s application, stating that Booth had not demonstrated she had special qualifications and experience of a nature not available amongst advocates and solicitors in Malaysia.

Verdargon said the Federal Court’s decision on Booth still stands until today.

Representing the KL Bar Committee, Datuk Gurdial Singh Nijar said Najib’s bid for QC seemed to suggest the reliance of an “outsider” like a crutch, before suggesting whether local advocates and solicitors were “useless” to some extent for not possessing the special qualifications, experience and expertise sought by Najib’s defence lawyer.

“It seems that without this ‘crutch’ we are inadequate. What is so inadequate about the eminence of Jonathan Laidlaw that we cannot match?

“I am urging the court to take into account the very strong objections from the Malaysian Bar and reject this further delaying of the entire (SRC International appeal) process,” he said.

Gurdial also pointed out the need for closure as the SRC International case has attracted attention both nationally and internationally following a protracted trial.

Senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan, appearing on behalf of the AGC, also noted that there was no evidence presented in court to further suggest Najib would be prejudiced if he was deprived of a foreign lawyer’s service.

“In relation to the other pleaded legal issues, there is no intimation that the appellant would suffer any prejudice or injustice if the foreign senior counsel is not admitted for the purpose of presenting oral arguments.

“There is no cogent reason to suggest that there is no good and adequate legal assistance available to the appellant locally, or the appellant would be materially prejudiced if deprived of the services of the foreign senior counsel,” he said, adding that the application for ad hoc admission by Laidlaw should not be allowed.

In his rebuttal, lawyer Harvinderjit Singh argued that there was no requirement for an applicant to be an expert in everything but merely present to the court his expertise is not available and what they could provide for the purpose of a particular case.

“The test (under Section 18(1) of the Legal Profession Act) is what the applicant can bring to the table. The test is not what other counsels can do but whether the QC has special qualifications,” he said.

Harvinderjit had also earlier asked the court if hearing could be postponed to tomorrow after Muhammad Shafee is still ill with laryngitis and on medical leave, before telling the court the latter’s condition may improve for him to attend court after getting adequate rest.

However, Ahmad Kamal rejected Harvinderjit’s request to postpone hearing and ordered for hearing to proceed as scheduled, citing that there was no application served to court requesting an adjournment while expressing sympathy towards Muhammad Shafee’s predicament.

The Federal Court is scheduled to hear Najib’s SRC appeal over a period of 10 days from August 15 to August 19, and from August 22 to August 26.

On December 8, 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and 12-year prison sentence as well as an RM210 million fine imposed against Najib for misappropriating RM42 million in SRC funds.

Justice Datuk Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil, who presided with fellow judges Datuk Has Zanah Mehat and Datuk Vazeer Alam Mydin Meera, unanimously dismissed Najib’s appeal against the High Court’s decision on July 28, 2020.

The Federal Court is Najib’s final avenue of appeal against his conviction and sentence.