Fine lines rule in judge of character

Editorial | Mary Ma 9 Mar 2018

The move by High Court judge Andrew Chan Hing-wai to, for all intents and purposes, name and shame a few well-known figures associated with former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was awesome.

And it was with sound reasons that it took former secretary for justice Wong Yan-lung, and ex-financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah an entire day to come up with their responses.

Had the same been said by somebody else outside of the courts, I suspect they might have already sued the speaker to protect their reputations.

Nobody would like to pick a fight with a judge - let alone someone in the High Court.

Wong and John Tsang clearly knew that whatever they stated in response could be viewed as an attempt to evade a fight. While this didn't necessarily constitute contempt of court, it might still be perceived as a challenge, at a time when every effort should be made to uphold - rather than denigrate - the authority of the independent Judiciary.

However, Chan's broadside was so fierce that it's understandable for them to want to defend themselves.

It's not easy to put up a statement that wouldn't impugn the judiciary. It must be so well crafted that it wouldn't go an inch further than what's necessary. So we heard Wong saying a day after Chan accused him and the mustachioed one of trying to influence the jury with their mere presence in the courtroom that the judge's observation wasn't factually correct.

For his part, John Tsang insisted his attendance was solely out of concern for a friend, which he said is a universal value.

The judge's barrage was far-ranging, as he finished his judgment by ordering Donald Tsang to pay a third of the government's legal cost for his bribery trial, in which the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Chan said he became aware that a public relations firm had been getting the prominent figures to sit with Tsang's family and friends in the reserved area. He believed it was an attempt to influence the jury - a subtle defiance of his earlier decision against allowing witnesses to testify to the accused's good character.

That's an unexpected sideshow in a trial that had been ongoing. However, what troubled me was that the judge admitted his conclusions were based on inference rather than direct evidence.

That's thought-provoking. So, should prominent figures be barred from showing up in a courtroom if that could constitute concern?

Indeed, the presiding judge can order someone to leave the courtroom if he or she has a very good reason to do so.

One example was the Mong Kok riots trial, where the judge ordered a Putonghua-speaking male to leave after a juror complained he felt intimidated after seeing him take photos of the jury.

So, the safeguard is already in place.

Holding a trial in an open court is an important principle of Hong Kong's judicial system. Do we want to copy the mainland model, where a trial is declared over - before the public even knows it had even started?

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