Last week, the Federal Court of Malaysia ruled that the prime minister and members of the Cabinet are public officers, overturning the Court of Appeal and the High Court's earlier decision that said the politicians are members of the administration and not public officers
The judgement by the nation's top court is a landmark one as it allows private citizens to sue the public officers for alleged misfeasance — wrongful use of lawful authority — in public office.
And the people can even hold the government "vicariously liable" for any alleged wrongdoing the public officers committed during their term of power in the public office.
The term "vicarious liability" means that superiors are responsible for the acts of their subordinates. In this case, a government can be held responsible for the actions of its prime minister and ministers.
It was a unanimous decision made by a seven-member bench
While the bench was led by Chief Justice Tan Sri Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, the judgement was written by Federal Court Justice Datuk Nallini Pathmanathan who read the summary of the decision.
According to a Bernama report, Justice Nallini said a prime minister or any other ministers are public officers within Section 5 of the Government Proceedings Act 1956.
She said that the Section envisaged that a claim may be brought against a public officer and this would include a claim against the prime minister, who is a public officer as envisaged under the Act.
The bench was answering two questions of law posed by Tony Pua
The Damansara Member of Parliament (MP) was appealing against the 2017 decision by the Court of Appeal and the High Court which had struck out his lawsuit against the then prime minister Najib Razak and his administration under the Barisan Nasional government.
The questions were:
1) Is the tort of misfeasance in public office available against the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, as an individual holding public office or as a public officer?
2) Can the government be vicariously liable for the acts of Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak if the tort is proven against him under the Government Proceedings Act 1956?
The judgement has since been hailed by retired Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram, who said that Malaysian legal system has finally "come out of the dark jungle that prevented civil action against politicians"
"We have finally come out of the dark jungle that prevented civil action against politicians who are public officers following earlier court decisions," Free Malaysia Today (FMT) quoted the former judge as saying.
According to him, Malaysian jurisprudence is now the same as England's where the tort of misfeasance in public office was developed some 300 years ago and that the Malaysian citizens can now hold public office holders accountable for their actions or omissions, reported FMT.