Swift justice a timely move

Editorial | Mary Ma 16 Jun 2020

Two British cabinet members were reported to have suggested fast-tracking the trial of people caught vandalizing, causing criminal damage and assaulting police during anti-racism protests by requiring some courts to stay open 24 hours a day.

Although no official announcement has been made, it's quite probable. According to The Times which is considered authoritative in the UK, the pair putting forward the plan are Home Secretary Priti Patel and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.

Can Hong Kong borrow some ideas from them?

At the height of the anti-government protests last year, the SAR judiciary also designated a handful of courts to open for longer hours to handle a sudden surge in riot-related cases as demonstrators were arrested in huge numbers.

The special arrangement appeared to have failed. For one thing, the number of arrests piled up faster than the judiciary could handle. Worse still, arrests are still accumulating as protests continue today.

Health-care systems break down if admissions keep rising at a rate higher than hospitals can handle, leaving some dying unnecessarily.

It's the same with the judiciary. If it continues to be overwhelmed by cases, could our system of justice break down?

Government figures given to the Legislative Council showed that, up to April, 7,613, people were arrested and slightly more than 1,200 had been prosecuted - meaning roughly one in every six people arrested had been charged.

As more people continue to be arrested for everything from unlawful assembly to rioting, the gap is bound to widen further.

At this juncture, it may again be tempting to refer to the British example for inspiration.

According to The Times, Patel and Buckland's plan is largely based on the special procedure brought in during the 2011 London riots. Then, several courts in London, Manchester and Solihull, near Birmingham, stayed open 24 hours a day to process cases involving looting and disorder-related offenses.

Although some lawyers complained they were deprived of a fair chance to put together a defense for their clients, the arrangement was largely well received by the British public.

Allowing timely appearance in court has always been an essential element of public justice - it is unfair to both sides if the wait for justice becomes perpetual.

The British example could have a deterrent effect since looters, as in the British situation, and violent demonstrators would be brought before the courts quickly.

Sky News' rather sensational follow-up headline said: "Violent protesters could be jailed within 24 hours under government plans."

The facts in relation to the 2011 riots were that slightly less than half of those arrested in London were jailed. The rest were given non-custodial sentences or released after being found not guilty.

Nonetheless, as for the diehards, the probability of being jailed within a day of arrest should create a sobering psychological effect.

After all, we should trust the judiciary for justice.

After Beijing announces details of the national security law for Hong Kong in the near future, it is expected to be greeted with more protests.

The courts will have to prepare for a new surge in arrests.

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