Debate needed on extending jury system

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2009, 12:00am

Trial by jury is a treasured feature of our system of justice. But, mainly for historical reasons, juries are not available to defendants at the District Court. There, they are tried by a judge alone, who can jail them for up to seven years. The circumstances that gave rise to this exception more than 50 years ago have changed, so extending the jury system is an option. But when lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee asked a question about it in the Legislative Council, the government responded by simply pointing out the administrative difficulties. This is disappointing.

The difficulties included implications for resources and demands on jurors. If the 600-plus District Court trials so far this year had been before a judge and jury, the costs would have been considerable. The administration was not convinced a re-examination was warranted. This weighs administrative convenience against questions of justice, which were not discussed. There have been calls for a review by some lawyers who argue that Hong Kong has high conviction rates. A small pool of jurors - the reason the District Court was established without juries in 1953 - is no longer a convincing argument. After the English-language requirement was dropped, the pool grew from 20,000 in 1995 to nearly 500,000 in 2006. Almost half of District Court criminal trials are now heard in Chinese. The introduction of juries would place greater demands on an already overworked District Court. Without more resources, trials would take longer and waiting lists would grow. But consideration should also be given to whether an extension of jury trials would boost confidence in the system.

Whether or not trial by jury serves the best interests of justice is a question that has attracted much academic discourse in the common law world. There are some who argue that jurors, who are not required to give reasons for their verdicts, act as an impediment to a fair trial. But the jury system enjoys public support in Hong Kong and is protected by the Basic Law. There is much to debate before we decide whether jury trials should be extended to the District Court, but is a debate we should have. It should not be brushed aside in the name of administrative inconvenience.