12 o’clock, I was greeted not by the bells of the church, nor the prayer songs from the mosque. Instead, I was greeted by a room full of laughter. No, they were not laughing at my messy hair or my wet shirt drenched in sweat. They were laughing at a joke, a joke that goes like this. The English border officer asked a Malaysian student: “What is the reason behind so many Malaysians coming to England to study law?” The Malaysian shrug his shoulder then shook his head, looking confused. The officer then ask: “So what is the purpose of your entrance?” The Student then answered with the fullest of confidence: “Study LO.”
This was not the first time I have heard the joke. Prior to this, it was nothing more than a tease, for Malaysian’s to laugh at our unique “language” and culture. It was not until the talk and how this joke is so relatable to the profession that got me thinking. In my opinion, by starting the talk with this joke, Mr Alex Chang has set the tone to today’s talk about Court Room Ethics perfectly.
Like many other countries in the world, we were conquered by the British, and to a certain extent shaped by the British. This is even more true when it comes to the legal profession. We practice Common Law, invented by the British. Our Legal System, be it court hierarchy or fundamental legal doctrines are almost entirely inspired by the British Legal System. Furthermore, the British has left their court room ethics that has maintained its standing throughout our legal history.
Bear in mind that court room etiquette is a very big contradiction to our “Oh, So Unique” Malaysian Culture. Sitting in the talk, I cannot help but get a little more excited for the day I will finally stand in front of a judge and I will explain.
To further demonstrate these court room etiquette, 4 students were involved in an assimilated mock trial. Usually it is an uphill task to gather participants for activities like this, after all one would be speaking in front of about 150 pair of eyes and ears. However, two brave individuals with confidence the size of an elephant volunteered to participate in this impromptu moot. Unsurprisingly, it was not perfect. Mr Alex Chang pointed out mistakes such as senior counsel handing the floor over to the junior counsel, which is against protocol and also addressing a High Court judge with the unfitting title of “Your Honour”. Nonetheless, the presentation skills and courage of the 4 students were highly commended.
First, let’s talk about decorum. From addressing your opponents, to language used, to the way a counsel should dress, decorum covers almost every aspect of how one should behave when one sets foot in the court room. Mr Alex Chang very clearly and chronologically explains how one should act in a court room. Starting from where a counsel sits (which incidentally depends on whether one is representing the Plaintiff or the Defendant), then how one should address the opponent, to how one should always speak in formal language and finally to how one should address the judge in different courts. It was nothing short of interesting and informative.
Nevertheless, his improbably detailed explanation of decorum burnt in my mind, which brings me back to my humble opinion that court room ethics are a big contradiction to our Malaysian Culture.
FORMAL LANGUAGE ONLY
Our country is multi-cultured, multi-racial and multi-lingual. Our language is a “Rojak” of the 3 main languages. Moreover, we use our “la, lo, leh” so often, foreigners would suspect it was an element to sustain Malaysian’s life. We are a culture who values our colloquialism. Then Mr Chang drops the bomb. FORMAL LANGUAGE ONLY. “Speak beautiful English” he said. Although, it is not necessary to use bombastic words. Then again, we as born and raised Malaysian lawyers have to do without our “la, lo, leh”, which I do believe, make us sound a bit more convincing. “Address the judges as “Your honour, Yang Arif or My Lord” Mr Chang reminded us.
He then continues to talk about court attires. Always be ready, be properly dressed in shirt and tie. Do not forget your coat. If one is to appear in High Court, Court of Appeal or the Federal Court, remember the robe or else the judge will say “I don’t see you, I don’t hear you.” Last but note least, do not reply by raising your hand and saying “Here!”. Neck ties, Jackets and Robes are not something you see in every Malaysian’s wardrobe as it is usually 30 degrees celsius outside. Now understandably, if one is to tell any normal Malaysian to wear a Jacket out under the sun, the reply would usually be “siao ah” or “bodoh ke?”
As I mentioned, our court room ethics which was derived from British court room ethics are a big contradiction to our culture. It was made for the British because first, the speak beautiful English without the “la, lo, leh” and secondly, they happen to be a cold country.
When Mr Alex Chang was explaining court decorum to the students, he delivered his presentation with passion. I followed Mr Alex Chang to court the day before the talk, after his meeting with the registrar, we stepped out and he said to me “Let’s stand here for 5 minutes”. Note that that was the first thing he said to me after we stepped out to stand under the sun. Then he explained “I have this theory, because of the difference in temperature, once you step out, stand outside for awhile, get used to the heat and you’ll be good to go.” Let’s switch roles, if I was to speak first, I would have complained about the weather, then about the coat, then blame the Malaysian government for not putting air-conds outdoor.
Mr Alex Chang gave the talk with passion and I could not emphasize that enough. The talk and all other instances of observing court room ethics made me realized that the legal profession has come a long way. After all, general consensus is that it is the second oldest profession after prostitution. These ethics are not just there to make lawyers suffer. No, it is there to protect the sanctity of the institution, to maintain the dignity of the profession. The students did not sacrifice four years of their beautiful life to walk into the court in t-shirt and slippers. The job is not for everyone and the court is not for every lawyer.
Then the topic moved on to Contempt of Court. Contempt of Court, in the simplest of terms mean to disrespect the court, whether it was being rude to a judge, or to your opponents, even the witnesses. Unfortunately and due to time constraints, Mr Alex Chang did not manage to dive deeper into the subject.
But the talk on court room decorum has left me with the constant reminder to hold myself to a whole new standard, to dress immaculately and to articulate beautifully.