Justice in and beyond the courts

Central Station | Mary Ma 27 Mar 2020

I couldn't agree more with High Court judge Russell Coleman that the coronavirus pandemic offers a unique opportunity for our judiciary to examine seriously how court hearings may be held remotely with the use of modern telecommunication technology when appearances by people in court become hard, if not outright impossible.

Remote hearings aren't unprecedented in Hong Kong - only that they're either not part of our system for administering justice or limited in scope.

In February, Coleman presided over what's reported to be the SAR's first court hearing held via speakerphones. Although it was only a civil case, the proceedings amount to a useful experience for future reference when Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li and his successor, Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, take the review further.

As a matter of necessity, remote communication links have been used for a while in cases where victims of sexual offenses were allowed to testify via live video links, though counsels debated in person in front of the judge following an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Ordinance in 2017 that gives the judge the discretion to opt for it.

Understandably, this discretionary power is limited.

It nevertheless marked the beginning of the use of live communication links in court hearings.

So, it was only timely that Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes appealed for an expansion of the use of technology to allow court hearings to be conducted remotely since it's unlikely for the current pandemic to come to an end very soon.

I'm concerned that if courts continue to remain shut without a proper alternative to hear cases, it would cause injustice to those seeking redress and facing accusations.

It is hoped that Ma and Cheung can raise our world-class judicial system to a new level of modernity with the help of the state-of-the-art technology available today.

Nonetheless, it must be warned that the integrity of judicial elements must be preserved and never compromised in the name of an upgrading.

By the same token, Cheung's succession as our next top judge has to be respected in total consistency with submissions made by the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission. Neither the administration nor lawmakers, regardless of their political colors, should do anything to politicize this changeover.

The viability of conducting a trial remotely was further demonstrated yesterday by a case far down under in New Zealand, in which a man accused of murdering more than 50 worshippers at two Christchurch mosques pleaded guilty to all charges via an audiovisual link from prison.

The British monarch too on the same day signed the Coronavirus Act 2020 into law to allow courts, for instance, to conduct hearings via video-conferencing.

These developments serve as proof that telecommunication links may be used even in serious criminal trials so long as the judge is satisfied that justice is no way endangered.

Given the uncertainty over the duration of this pandemic, there is a strong practical need to keep the courts open.

Ma, the chief justice, was swift to respond to Dykes' appeal, saying the judiciary is actively considering expanding the scope of hearings via telephone or video-conferencing.

While Ma's positive response is most welcome, it is important that modernization will continue even after the pandemic is over.

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