Sunday, December 19, 2010

A bargain for justice

The authorities must always bear in mind that when implementing plea bargaining, the system is open to possible abuses. It is important to ensure the system is more advantageous than disadvantageous for all the stakeholders in our criminal justice system to practise it.

CHIEF Justice Tun Zaki Azmi announced on Monday that plea bargaining will be implemented soon. The plea bargaining will allow those who plead guilty to serve a prison term which is not more than half of the maximum punishment imposed under the law for the offence for which an accused has been convicted.

This is made possible after Parliament passed the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Act 2010 (Act A1378). Royal assent was obtained on June 2, and Act A1378 was gazetted on June 10. It will now come into operation on the date to be fixed by Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.

What then is a plea bargain? In simple terms, it is an agreement reached after negotiation between the prosecutor and the accused in a criminal case whereby, if the accused agrees to plead guilty, the prosecutor will reduce the original criminal charge to a lesser charge or withdraw any other remaining charges or the accused will receive a lighter sentence if he faces the original criminal charge.

It is said that plea bargaining existed as far back as 1485 involving an English statute prohibiting unlawful hunting. The statute stated that an accused would be convicted only of a summary offence if he pleaded guilty; otherwise, he would be charged with a felony offence punishable by imprisonment.

In Malaysia, plea bargaining hitherto is done in an indirect way whereby the accused’s counsel will make representation to the Public Prosecutor to reduce the charge, for example, from a murder charge to a charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder if the accused pleads guilty.

However, the court is not involved in this process, and sentencing remains the sole prerogative of the presiding judge. As put trenchantly by Justice Wan Yahya in New Tuck Shen v Public Prosecutor (1982):
“This court does not consider it bound by the private bargaining between the prosecution and the defence in respect of which bargaining it is not a party and in which it has been judicially prohibited to participate. The right to impose punishment on a guilty party is absolutely the discretion of the court. It will exercise that power judicially but will not tolerate any encroachment or even semblance of encroachment either by the prosecution or the defence in respect of such right.

“An agreement between the prosecution and the defence as to the nature of sentence to be imposed on the accused creates no obligation on the court and is good only for pricking the conscience of the defaulting party.”

In fact, this is still the current position practised in common law jurisdictions such as England, Canada and Singapore, albeit plea bargaining is now statutorily permitted in Pakistan and India since 1999 and 2006, respectively.