Open justice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 February, 1998, 12:00am

Sixteen months after our campaign for open justice set out to challenge the practice of closed hearings in Hong Kong courts, it begins to look as if justice in all its forms will be seen to be done in Hong Kong.

A sweeping report by a legal think-tank recommending that the public be given access to private court hearings came out in August. It has now received the backing of leading judges. This makes it likely that the proposals will be implemented. For the first time, the public will be able to witness proceedings in civil actions which are held in chambers, not open court.

One of the launching points of our campaign stemmed from the practice of holding hearings in chambers far too frequently. Lawyers and academics were alarmed at the trend. There were fears that court procedure was becoming 'sloppy' and that some hearings took place in private simply to avoid the bother of wearing wigs and gowns.

On a single day, 28 cases were heard in private in Supreme and District courts. When a reporting ban was imposed by former Chief Justice Ti Liang Yang, academics said the 'obnoxious' decision meant rulings would not be available for formal law reporting. That would have deprived lawyers of the means to learn about new legal developments.

Later, when magistrates' courts used a directive by the Privacy Commissioner to deny reporters access to charge sheets in criminal cases, we declared that 'Hong Kong's cherished personal freedoms may not be as assured as the Basic Law and Joint Declaration led people to believe'.

A change of policy came swiftly in that instance, but it may be some time yet before the public are given access to hearings in chambers. Changes to legislation and Supreme Court rules will be needed first. That is normal. The important thing is that justice - and confidence in the system - is best served by making it as public as possible.