Caught in limbo waiting for a date in court

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 January, 1993, 12:00am

IT WAS cold, wet and dark last Friday; and hardly any more welcoming in the lobby of the Supreme Court in Admiralty.

Ringed by the first-floor balustrade, the lobby was a place few appeared to want to be, once they had consulted the courts list.

Yet in the week the new legal year began, a case could be made for setting up comfortable chairs and maybe a refreshment kiosk to accommodate the growing number of people waiting for their cases to be heard.

Figures released by the Judiciary show the average waiting time for trials and hearings at Hongkong's courts and tribunals continues to grow, despite the Judiciary's undertaking a year ago to cut ''unacceptable delays''.

At the opening of the new legal year at City Hall last week, the Attorney-General, Mr Jeremy Mathews, the Chief Justice, Sir Ti Liang Yang, and the head of the Bar Association, Ms Jacqueline Leong, spoke at length about some issues facing the profession.

They included the disparity in pay and conditions between expatriate and local judges, lawyers' fees and the continued independence of the Judiciary as Britain prepared to hand Hongkong over to the Chinese.

While attention has centred on these high-profile issues, little mention has been made of the time it takes to bring cases before the territory's courts.

According to Judiciary figures, there has been a fourfold increase since 1985 in the time it takes to bring a criminal case before the High Court.

The hold-ups are costly - in time and money - not to mention the human cost incurred by Hongkong's 1,100 remand prisoners languishing in custody while they wait for their cases.

The Supreme Court Registrar Mr Julian Betts did not reply to questions about the upward trend.

But Professor Raymond Wacks, head of the Department of Law at the University of Hongkong, pointed a finger at the Judiciary, arguing major changes were needed to the administration.

''It is down to the judicial administration. There is a fundamental issue about the delays to be addressed there. It is hard to know just how efficiently they are operating in practice. Obviously Hongkong has problems.'' Professor Wacks said one of the major problems was that in the ''vast majority'' of criminal cases the accused challenged the statement they gave to the police, often saying they were coerced or beaten into signing.

''Then the court must have a trial within a trial to consider whether or not the statement was given voluntarily. In many cases you have up to 20 defendants; the thing goes on and on.

''That is an extraordinary waste of time and money. It is outrageous.'' He strongly advocated the use of the Independent Commission Against Corruption's system where statements were videotaped, as a way to reduce the possibility of challenges.

Professor Wacks also questioned whether judges were given any guidance by the Judiciary about how to approach cases to dovetail them into others ready to be heard; how well court lists were organised to meet the availability of counsel; and if people were encouraged, or discouraged, from opting for a trial.

Professor Wacks described as ''antediluvian'' the practice of District Court judges of writing down the proceedings in longhand, and wondered why stenographers could not be employed, as they were in the High Court.

Despite comments made last week about the call for more judges, he was sceptical about the relationship between the number of judges and the pace that cases were expedited.

In 1985, a defendant waiting to have his case heard in the High Court would, on average, expect to wait 74 days.

By 1988, that figure had risen to 82 days and two years later the average for the six months from January to June was 139 days.

In 1991, the last year figures are available, the wait had ballooned to 268 days, or almost nine months.

Civil cases going before the Court of Appeal fell in 1991 to 87, compared with 104 in the previous year. But that figure is a single drop among all of the senior courts - the Court of Appeal, High Court, District Court and magistracies.

In 1991, it took an average of 90 days to have a criminal case heard before the Court of Appeal, compared with 65 in 1990, 54 in 1989, 34 in 1987 and 69 in 1985.

Civil jurisdictions in the High Court rose from 229 to 256 days from 1990 to 1991. But in 1989 that figure was 104; 59 days in 1987 and 112 days in 1985.

In the tribunals and the Coroner's Court the picture for 1991 is better, although waiting times have increased since 1985. In that year it took 146 days, but in 1991 it fell to 43. Seven years ago a case took an average of 73 days to reach the Small Claims Tribunal; in 1991 it fell to 49 days.

Generally the bulk of criminal cases are heard before a magistrate. Waiting times have remained fairly constant, between the mid-40s from 1985 to 1991 and settling at 52 days.

This is of little comfort for those waiting in prison for their cases.Almost 1,100 prisoners are on remand out of a prison population of 9,915.

More than 200 have been waiting for six months, and by the end of last November 83 people had spent more than a year in custody on remand, according to figures supplied by the Correctional Services Department.