KUALA LUMPUR (Jan 29): The sudden passing of former Federal Court judge Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram on Sunday (Jan 29) afternoon caught many by surprise. Nevertheless, his legacy as one of the great minds of the legal fraternity in Malaysia will continue to live on. As in the words of the former chief justice (CJ) Tun Zaki Azmi, Sri Ram was a “great judge”.
Zaki, who was CJ from Oct 21, 2008 to Sept 2011, and was responsible for seeing the elevation of Sri Ram to the Federal Court in 2009, described the passing of the legal luminary as a great loss to the legal fraternity.
“He was a great judge and a formidable counsel when in court,” Zaki told The Edge when contacted.
Zaki, prior to his appointment as a Federal Court judge, was also in private practice. His father Tun Azmi Mohamed was a former lord president.
Sri Ram came from private practice and ascended straight to the Court of Appeal in 1994, when the appellate court was formed during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister.
He was there as the most senior appellate court judge until his elevation to the Federal Court in 2009, during Zaki’s time.
Sri Ram retired a year later due to the maximum retirement age of judges at 66 years and a possible extension of another six months.
Another former CJ Tun Ariffin Zakaria said he is deeply saddened by Sri Ram’s passing.
“I have known him since my days as a magistrate in Bukit Mahkamah Kuala Lumpur. In the judiciary, I had the privilege of serving with him as judge of the Court of Appeal and (that of) the Federal Court. I always had high regard for Gopal Sri Ram.”
“The cordial and close relationship between us continued even after our retirement. His contributions to Malaysian jurisprudence is evident in the many judgements delivered by him. I certainly have benefited from his knowledge and wisdom. I have no doubt that his demise would be felt by the legal fraternity.
“I certainly will miss my brother, judge Gopal Sri Ram. To his wife and children, I wish to express my deepest and heartfelt condolences," the former CJ who replaced Tun Zaki said.
Prior to being a well-known lawyer, Sri Ram was a teacher, and taught in the same school with former Malacca chief minister, the late Datuk Seri Mohd Zin Abdul Ghani.
He took up law and was admitted in Lincoln’s Inn in 1969, and among his famous cases which he took was representing former youth and sports minister Datuk Mokhtar Hashim in the murder case of a former Negeri Sembilan speaker.
When on the bench, Sri Ram was known to give off-the-cuff judgements after hearing submissions from the lawyers and some of his written judgements are considered landmarks and are continuously being referred to at present day.
As he led the Court of Appeal bench, and upon seeing journalists sitting at the public gallery, he would ask them to fill the seats at the lawyers table upfront.
Despite the controversy of him re-entering private practice after his retirement as a senior judge, Sri Ram continued to be in the courtroom corridor.
He was constantly a regular presence at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Federal Court either physically, or virtually in civil cases especially during the Covid-19 period since 2019.
Between 2014 and 2015, Sri Ram took over from the late Karpal Singh in representing Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the sodomy II case.
Meanwhile, current CJ Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat in a statement said the judiciary extends its condolences to Sri Ram’s family.
“His passing is a huge loss to the Malaysian judiciary and the legal fraternity.
“The late Sri Ram had contributed immensely to the judiciary as a Court of Appeal and Federal Court judge. His passing is a great loss to the judiciary and the country as a whole,” she said.
Meanwhile, Attorney-General Tan Sri Idrus Harun in a response said it is upon great sadness that he had learnt of Sri Ram’s passing.
“We (the nation) have indeed lost a great legal mind and senior practitoner. I have known him personally since 1980 when I was a senior assistant registrar at the High Court.
“I found him to be very courteous, humble and always willing to share his immense legal knowledge qualities, which he always carried. I express my deepest condolences to his family at this difficult time,” he said.
Former CJ Tun Md Raus Sharif described Sri Ram as colourful in his eloquence of the English language.
Raus said Sri Ram’s passing is a great loss. Raus extended his condolences to Sri Ram’s family.
“I had the honour and privilege of sitting with him (Sri Ram) in the Court of Appeal. He was charismatic and colourful in his language while on the bench.
“As a judge, he has written numerous illuminating and authoritative judgements in diverse critical areas of the law. It was always a pleasure to sit with him on the bench,” Raus added.
Former attorney-general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas, who appointed Sri Ram as senior deputy public prosecutor to prosecute Najib in the 1MDB-Tanore trial and Rosmah’s solar hybrid case, described the former Federal Court judge as a national treasure.
“No one post-Merdeka has contributed more to legal scholarship and the administration of justice than Sri Ram.
“First, as Malaysia’s preeminent barrister who was rewarded to become the first direct appointment to the newly established Court of Appeal in 1994. Secondly, as one of our greatest judges, whose judgements adorn our law reports in so many diverse branches of the law.
“Finally, as Malaysia’s greatest prosecutor in leading our most difficult prosecutions in the 1MDB scandals. Sri Ram had a world class brain; he was as cerebral as any in the common law world. Incredibly articulate in speech, and eloquent in prose," Tommy described.
Tommy said he had lost a dear friend and is devastated by Sri Ram’s sudden demise.
“May his soul rest in eternal peace,” he added.
As a journalist covering the Anwar case, Latheefa Koya and lawyer N Surendran once told us the strict nature of the former Federal Court judge.
“He would tell us to dress smartly and wear the bib properly when in court and carefully prepare the submissions,” said Latheefa, who later became Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief commissioner in 2018, before leaving in 2020.
Senior lawyer Datuk Baljit Singh Sidhu described Sri Ram as a great lawyer and judge.
“His amazing dedication and conviction to legal jurisprudence is exemplary. At times, he can be very combative; it is his nature. May God bless his soul,” Baljit said.
Another lawyer Syed Iskandar Syed Jaafar described Sri Ram as always willing to share his legal mind when in court.
“He is a fatherly figure in court and his sudden death caught me by surprise. I last visited him at the hospital last month. He appeared in my case last month,” he said.
Syed Iskandar, along with former Klang member of Parliament Charles Santiago, had challenged the legality of the dissolution of Parliament last October, which led to the 15th general election in November.