The development of the legal system in the States of Sabah and Sarawak can be traced back to the days when Captain James Brooke became the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842, and when the British North Borneo company was granted concessions to much of North Borneo (as Sabah was then known) in 1865. A legal system thus developed with the English principles of law and justice being applied, with modifications to suit the local customs and conditions.
The first judges and magistrates were in fact administrators. The highest court in each territory was the Supreme Court. North Borneo only got its first legally qualified Judicial Commissioner in 1912, a post that was later to be called “Chief Justice”. The territory of Sarawak had its first legally qualified Judge in 1928 in the person of Mr. Justice T.S. Stirling – Boyd. He was the Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court of Sarawak till 1939. This was the period when a proper and systematic legal system based on legal principles was established.
When North Borneo and Sarawak became Crown Colonies after the Second World War, these 2 Borneo territories, together with Brunei, formed a Combined Judiciary. In addition to the High Court a Court of Appeal was also established. The Combined Judiciary was headed by a Chief Justice, the first of whom was Sir Ivor Brace. This system continued until 1963 when North Borneo was renamed Sabah and together with Sarawak, merged with Malaya and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia. Brunei’s Judiciary went its separate way.
Under the Malaysian Federal Constitution, the States in Malaya and the Borneon States of Sabah and Sarawak shall have one High Court each, each of co’ordinate jurisdiction and styled the High Court of Malaya and the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak. When the Federation was formed in 1963 each High Court was headed by a Chief Justice. The Chief Justice of the Borneon States is based in Kuching. The titles of “Chief Justices” were later changed to “Chief Judges” in 1994, and the High Court of Borneo, to the High Court in Sabah and Sarawak.