The Academic Question Conundrum
What is an academic question?
An academic question, or a hypothetical question, as propounded by the Federal Court in Metramac Corp Sdn Bhd (formerly known as Syarikat Teratai KG Sdn Bhd) v Fawziah Holdings Sdn Bhd, is a question of law which does not affect the outcome of a dispute between the parties in court/ affect the legal rights of a party in a dispute. The question might solve future conundrums, but at the point of the parties dispute, it bears no relevance to the parties dispute nor does it have any practical use in the current dispute.
Generally, the court will not determine and entertain an academic question. This would include a live and practical question that subsequently became an academic question, where because of a change of factual context, the outcome will no longer affect the parties in any way foreseeable.
The courts have on multiple occasions explain the why behind the what i.e. while they can in fact determine academic questions, they will not because:
- The court may potentially be asked to decide important principles without the benefit of a full set of facts. There is also to be considered a practical factor: the administration of justice would hardly be served if the courts were regularly to entertain cases that were not real but only hypothetical.
- Usually, a valid question of law in a dispute can be put to the sword to determine its finality once and for all. Once it is decided in its finality, it cannot be re-litigated by the same parties. This cannot be said for an academic question, as a question of law decided in abstract i.e. an academic question can be reopened again and again for litigation.
- The court is neither a debating club or an advisory bureau i.e. it is not the function of the courts to decide hypothetical questions that do not impact the rights of the parties in a dispute. If the court undertakes such exercise, it would “merely be expressing its view on a legal conundrum which a party hopes to get decided in its favor without any way affecting the position of the party in question”.
What the court is trying to say is this: the court would not engage in a fruitless exercise which is wholly ineffectual so far as the parties are concerned, as not only it is unnecessary and pointless, it is also inexpedient to decide on such an issue.
Under what circumstances will the court determine an academic question?
The only exception is in relation to questions of public law.
What is public law? In short, Public law are laws that govern the relationship between the state and the general public/ society as a whole. For example, in criminal law, the government dictates what constitutes an illegal act- if you commit an illegal act, the government can actually bring a criminal charge against you.Under the exception, the court will not entertain an academic question unless there is a good reason for doing so. For example, R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex p Salem, the court will flex their muscles and determine an academic question if the question is:
- A discrete point of statutory construction which does not involve a detailed considerations of facts; and
- A large number of similar cases exist or are anticipated to exist so that the issue will most likely need to be resolved in the near future.
However, as the court pointed out, this exception should not be exercised unless there is a good reason (for example, the public interest requires the question to be heard) to do so.
In conclusion, it is not disputed that certain academic questions are undoubtedly of importance. However, as noted by the court, it would not be a proper exercise of the authority given to the court i.e. to uphold the rights of parties before them if it occupies its time in deciding an academic question instead of solving the crux of a case.
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