Time to widen the pool of jurors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2003, 12:00am

It is fair to say that an impoverished mother accused of stealing handbags to help her sick child might not view seven well-dressed urban professionals - all linguists to boot - as her peers, even in the widest context.

Yet, as this newspaper outlines today, that could be the daily reality in Hong Kong's court system - even as it seeks to uphold the common law principle that defendants have the right to face trial by their peers.

Local rules, however, have for a century demanded that those fellow members of the community can only be limited to the educated who are also proficient in English. Up until the last decade, when all trials were conducted in English, that may have been at least understandable.

Now, however, up to 78 per cent of trials, except in specialised courts, are conducted in Chinese. Yet just 4.4 per cent of Hong Kong's 6.8 million people are eligible to serve as jurors under the existing requirements.

That said, Hong Kong juries still have a good reputation across the common law for decisions based on the evidence, rather than more emotional judgments. Surveys suggest high rates of confidence in the judiciary - despite the fact that Hong Kong generally delivers more guilty verdicts than other jurisdictions, perhaps in keeping with jurors who are generally closer to the establishment than those in the dock.

The government is, rightly, reviewing the situation. The solution, however, could prove more complex than it appears.

Calls for two pools of jurors - one for English trials and another for Chinese - could obviously lead over time to a sense of differing standards. Given the sense that the system is essentially working, the government may be reluctant to change it even after review.

That would also be wrong. Just as the introduction of Chinese-language trials was a logical step at the time, so is widening the jury pool now.



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