BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Thursday saw the opening of Brunei’s Legal Year, a largely ceremonial tradition that gives members of the legal community a chance to reflect on the past 12 months, and for key stakeholders to identify issues that should be addressed in the coming year.

Here’s an overview of the key points raised during the ceremony:

Need for an ombudsman

The Law Society called on the authorities to establish the office of an ombudsman, which would investigate complaints of maladministration in the public sector.

“The aim is to resolve complaints through recommendations or mediation which may help identify issues such as poor service or failure to comply with the relevant laws and regulations,” Law Society President On Hung Zheng said in his address at the opening of the Legal Year.

President of the Law Society, On Hung Zheng, addressing the legal community during the opening of Legal Year 2019. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop

“In Brunei, there is no judicial review, so to ensure fair and smooth processes an ombudsman would benefit the country by increasing the transparency of public administration,” he told The Scoop in a later interview.

“It would be a body that receives all complaints — they make recommendations, they do not change the decision [made by a government agency]. But it is a way to provide checks and balances as well as increase local and foreign confidence to make long-term investments in the country.”

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Still no clarity on Land Code

The Law Society stressed that, after many years in limbo, the amendment to the Land Code had yet to be enacted by the government. The policy, which was announced at the Legislative Council bak in 2012, voids land ownership purchased through power of attorney.

The directive — which effectively bans non-Bruneians from purchasing or transferring land –was aimed at creating transparency in land ownership, allowing only Brunei citizens to own land.

But the matter has caused great consternation among the legal community, with the government saying that, once introduced, the new law will be applied retroactively.

This means that the more than 47,000 land deeds issued through power of attorney will be converted to 60-year leases, and upon expiry, property must be handed over to the government.

Diplomats attending the opening of the Legal Year held at the Supreme Court on Jan 10, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Harun/ The Scoop

“The continued uncertainty surrounding the fundamental right to buy, sell and own property for a period of almost seven years is having adverse effects not only on the legal profession but on the economy as a whole,” On said in his speech at the Supreme Court building.

“Public confidence in our legal system is also driven by clarity and certainly in the application of our laws. This undeniably includes the certainty of protections to individual property rights.”

New laws to address data security

Attorney General YB Dato Paduka Hj Hairol Arni Hj Abdul Majid said the AGC is working closely with other government agencies to draft new legislation on monitoring and more efficient reporting of cybersecurity threats. The new laws will also create a licensing regime that will regulate how data security is handled by mobile networks.

“It is hoped this new law will add further dimension to data privacy, cybercrime legal framework and cybersecurity as a whole,” he said.

Attorney General, YB Dato Hj Hairol Arni Hj Abdul Majid, giving a speech at the Supreme Court building during the opening of the Legal Year on Jan 10, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop.

The Attorney General later told The Scoop that ASEAN and China will also work together closely to tackle cybercrime by setting up special counsel and mutual legal assistance.

A total of 2,143 cybersecurity attacks were recorded in Brunei in 2017, according to the Brunei Computer Emergency Response Team.

Judiciary to speed up court processes

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Dato Paduka Steven Chong, said the judiciary must speed up the timeliness of case management, with judicial officials given a target of one month from the close of submissions to issue a judgment on a case, while decisions on more complex litigation should take no more than three months to deliver.

He also highlighted the need for more stakeholders to employ the use of court-accredited mediation as an alternative method of dispute resolution, which would see a faster conclusion to most cases with reduced time and costs to parties involved.

The judiciary has also completed a “Bench Book”, a guideline for on sentencing for a range of offences, aimed at providing a greater level of consistency in sentencing from judges and magistrates.

Chief Justice Dato Steven Chong delivering his speech to mark the opening of the Legal Year 2019. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop

Too many law grads, not enough jobs

For the first time, the legal profession is finding it harder to resolve the oversupply of law graduates, On said.

“It cannot be stressed enough that the growth of the profession is linked with the strength of the country’s economy.

“If the economy is not doing well, less work goes to law firms and the ability to hire these local law graduates decreases.”

National unemployment reached 9.3 percent in 2017, with youth unemployment recorded at 28.4 percent.

Members of the legal community gather at the Supreme Court for the opening of Legal Year 2019. Photo: Hazimul Harun/The Scoop

The Law Society also called for the authorities to regulate foreign law firms establishing a presence in Brunei, saying there must be a balance of opening up and the need to develop Bruneian law firms.

On said: “If large law firms come here and set up, and they have a team of hundreds of lawyers, there is no competition, no level playing field.”

During the ceremony, the Attorney General also urged the Law Society to simplify its disciplinary procedures when investigating misconduct by legal practitioners. The current two-tier inquiry panel is too cumbersome and results in delays and public discontentment, he said.

“We should revisit this provision with a view of having only a one-tier inquiry panel or committee and the disciplinary evaluation process to be determined and dealt with by the court,” Dato Hj Hairol said.