Chief justice backs call for remote courts

Top News | Justin Tong 26 Mar 2020

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li says the Judiciary is actively considering the expansion of the scope of hearings via telephone or video-conferencing amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

His comment came a day after The Standard reported that Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes urged the Judiciary on Monday to consider enacting emergency legislation to allow remote court hearings, if the situation deteriorates and the resumption of normal service becomes distant.

He also called upon Hong Kong to look to the British example, where its government put forward emergency legislation to extend the circumstances when courts may conduct proceedings remotely via video hearings.

Addressing challenges faced by courts during the outbreak, Ma said in a statement yesterday that most court hearings, except urgent ones, have been suspended since January 29, with about 18 percent of the annual caseload affected.

"The greater use of technology has been urged on the Judiciary and generally I agree with this approach," he said.

But he believed the use of such means should comply with court rules and procedures. Information technology security issues should also be addressed.

A Legislative Council paper submitted by the Judiciary yesterday said "the integrity of the specific aspects of the court operation involving the use of IT cannot be jeopardized or compromised."

The Judiciary said it will study the use of IT with a pragmatic attitude. It has created special e-mail accounts for the public to lodge certain documents to the court electronically. It is also extending the electronic submission platform from the District Court to the High Court and the Family Court from April 1 to better facilitate online document submission.

It has also procured additional video-conferencing facilities to meet the increasing demand for video court hearings in the future.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum also supported remote justice but cautioned against some potential issues.

"What if a defendant, who had not been detained, is convicted in court and he has to be locked up?" New People's Party lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan asked.

Dennis Kwok Wing-hang of the Civic Party said that "transparency of hearings must be maintained so the public can access it."

But Kwok said it was not necessary to enact emergency laws to allow remote court hearings, given that video conferencing has been adopted in the city.

"A HK$682 million fund was approved in 2013 to allow Hong Kong courts to implement technology reform. It is time to put these resources into action," he added.

On Sunday, the Judiciary announced postponing ordinary cases for another two weeks until April 5, except for urgent and essential court procedures.

Since February the courts have also been adopting other measures such as temperature checks for visitors and a 50 percent reduction of seating capacity in courtrooms.

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