Paving the way for a more open justice system
Every branch of government and every public body should aim to be as open and transparent as possible. This applies to the administration of justice, although there are some special considerations.
The judiciary must at all times be fair and impartial and, as it is central to our rule of law, must never be compromised. There will always be times when proceedings of a particular court case need to be dealt with more sensitively than other cases.
This does not mean, however, that the judiciary should be exempt from moving with the times. Technology has made it easier to record court proceedings. But gaining access to these records is a costly exercise. And where transcripts are needed by litigants wishing to bring an appeal, the high fees can inhibit access to justice.
This has been recognised by the government with its decision to effectively reduce the fee charged for transcripts in English and to make available audio compact discs and DVDs of proceedings. The move is a step in the right direction, but there is room for more to be done.
The costs could still prove prohibitive despite a change to the basis for charging fees from per page to per word. While this means English transcripts will be halved in price, Chinese ones will be slightly more expensive than before.
For complicated proceedings that sometimes run to thousands of pages of transcripts, this can mean a substantial outlay for litigants. It also raises the issue of equality under the law, as the Department of Justice and other government departments are not charged for transcripts.
There are clearly budgetary considerations to be taken into account. The judiciary administrator has warned that the current fees only just cover the costs of providing the transcription service. But access to justice should be the priority and extra funding made available, if needed. An additional review is required to see if there is room to further reduce the fees. Consideration should also be given to simplifying procedures to make it easier for needy litigants to apply for the fee to be waived.
Open justice is one of the hallmarks of our system. Civil and criminal court proceedings in Hong Kong are generally open to the public. But audio and video recordings, other than the official ones, are not permitted. In other countries proceedings can be broadcast and there is easier access to court records and documents.
Any similar moves in Hong Kong must bear in mind that the interests of justice are paramount. But this should not prevent consideration being given to ways of making the system more open. In England, for example, tentative steps are being taken to allow certain cases to be broadcast. Justice systems are ever-evolving and greater efforts must be made to make what is said and done in courtrooms available to as wide an audience as possible.