Available at the Malaysian Reserve, Oct, 19, 2009.
The Court of Appeal, in a written judgement on the Bai Bithaman Ajil (BBA) case presided earlier by High Court judgde Datuk Justice Abdul Wahab Patail, had found that the judge had erred when equating profit with riba, misinterpreted a key definition in the Islamic banking regulations and had side stepped earlier rulings made by the Supreme Court. The written judgment is for the March 31 unanimous decision when the Court of Appeal reversed the earlier High Court decision that BBA contracts were contrary to Malaysia’s Islamic banking regulations, providing a relief to local Islamic banks that had earlier feared a potential spike in defaults of Islamic contracts, especially for home financing.
In the judgment dated Aug 26 and signed off by Justice Datuk Md Raus Sharif, he wrote that “judges in civil court should not take upon themselves to declare whether a matter is in accordance to the Religion of Islam or otherwise”, further adding “whether the bank business is in accordance with the Religion of Islam, it needs consideration by eminent jurists who are properly qualified in the field of Islamic jurisprudence.”
The judgment by Justice Md Raus, who sat together with justices Datuk Abdull Hamid Embong and Datuk Ahmad Maarop in a three-men panel, brings to closure the much-debated Abdul Wahab’s judgment in 2008 which probably triggered Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) into making it mandatory for the courts to refer to the central bank’s Shariah Advisory council (SAC) when deciding on Shariah matters in Islamic banking and finance cases.
In the new Central Bank of Malaysia Act (CBA) 2009, which was gazetted on Sept 3, it now makes it mandatory for courts to refer to SAC for rulings concering Shariah matters. Section 56 provides states that where ‘in any proceeding relating to Islamic finance business before any court or arbitrator any question question arises concering a Shariah matter’, the court or the arbitrator shall take into consideration SAC published rulings or refer such questions to the council for its ruling. On top of that, CBA’s Section 57 makes it clear that SAC rulings shall be binding on the Islamic financial institutions, the court or the arbitrator.
The judgment, in favour of plaintiff Bank Islam Malaysia Bhd (BIMB), was for nine BBA contract cases, including the case of Bank Islam Malaysia Bhd v Ghazali Shamsuddin & 2 Others. The Malaysian Reserve first reported on Abdul Wahab’s judgment on Sept 8, 2008.
PROFIT AND RIBA
In one of the salient points in the 31-page judgment, Justice Md Raus said that Justice Abdul Wahab was plainly wrong when he equated the profit earned by BIMB as being similar to riba or interest.
“We have no hesitation in accepting that riba or interest is prohibited in Islam. But the issue at hand is whether such comparison between a BBA contract and conventional loan agreement was appropriate.
“With respect, we do not think so. This is because the two instruments of financing are not alike and have different characteristics. BBA contract is a sale agreement whereas a conventional loan agreement is a money lending transaction. The profit in BBA contract is different from interest arising in a conventional loan transaction. The two transactions are diversely different and indeed diametrically opposed,” he writes.
He also noted that the law applicable to BBA contracts is no different from the law applicable to loan given under the conventional banking.
“The law is the law of contract and the same principle should be applied in deciding these cases. Thus, if the contract is not vitiated by any vitiating factor recognised in law such as fraud, coercion, undue influence, etc. the court has a duty to defend, protect and uphold the sanctity of the contract entered into between the parties,” he said.
The justices also commented on Justice Abdul Wahab’s attempts to replace the sale price under the Property Purchase Agreement with an ‘equitable interpretation’ and substituting the obligation of customer to pay the sale price with a ‘loan amount’ and ‘profit’ computed on a daily basis, as Justice Abdul Wahab had expounded in Affin Bank Bhd. v Zulkifli Abdullah (Supra).
This, in the views of the Court of Appeal, was the act of “rewriting the contract for the parties”.
“It is trite law that the Court should not rewrite the terms of the contract between the parties that it deems to be fair or equitable,” writes Justice Md Raus.
WHAT IS ISLAMIC BANKING?
The judgment then commented on Abdul Wahab’s interpretation of ‘Islamic banking business’ in section 2 of the Islamic Banking Act (IBA) 1983 where the High Court judge had argued that if a facility is to be offered as Islamic to Muslims generally, regardless of their mazhab, then the test to be applied by a civil court must logically be that there is no element not approved by the Religion of Islam under the interpretation of any of the recognised mazhabs.
Here, Justice Md Raus writes that it is our view that judges in civil court should not take upon themselves to declare whether a matter is in accordance to the Religion of Islam or otherwise.
“As rightly pointed out by Suriyadi J (as he then was) in Arab-Malaysian Merchant Bank Bhd  5 MLJ 210 that in the civil court ‘not every presiding judge is a Muslim, and even if so, may not be sufficiently equipped to deal with matters, which ulamak take years to comprehend’.
“Thus, whether the bank business is in accordance with the Religion of Islam, it needs consideration by eminent jurists who are properly qualified in the field of Islamic jurisprudence,” he said.
The Court of Appeal judgment also noted that the questions raised by Wahab Patail on the validity and enforceability of the BBA contracts is not novel and that it had been raised in previous cases and had been ruled upon.
It cited the case of Adnan bin Omar v Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad (unreported) where the Supreme Court upheld the validity and enforceability of the BBA contract. In that case, the Supreme Court accepted as correct and affirmed the judgment of Ranita Hussein JC.
Subsequently, it added that the validity and the enforceability of BBA contracts was again decided by this court in Datuk Hj Nik Mahmud Nik Daud v Bank Islam Malaysia Bhd  3 CLJ 605, and Bank Kerjasama Rakyat Malaysia Bhd v Emcee Corporation Sdn Bhd (Supra).
“From the above cases, it is clear that the validity and enforceability of the BBA contract had been ruled upon by the superior courts. It is trite law that based on the doctrine of stare decisis, a decision of a superior court is binding on all courts below it. The importance of this principle must not be taken lightly,” writes Justice Raus.
Note: Most predicted judgement by the Court of Appeal. Slight release to Islamic finance industry but continuous nightmare to Islamic banks’ customers. Despite of the High Court judgement was overruled by the Court of Appeal, the decision made by the learned judge at least effectively highlighted several significance issues on the actual implementation of BBA and signalled a strong message about the status of some controversial Islamic financial products.
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