Flaw and order

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am

I was involved in a minor traffic offence about a year ago but was finally cleared by the court last week with full costs awarded. Some people have said I was able to defend myself only because I could afford it. I disagree. I went to court instead of paying the small fine because I was in the right and, as a current affairs commentator, I also wanted to experience what the majority often have to go through.

For practical reasons, most professional drivers would rather surrender their legal rights than go to court because they have to eke out a living and do not have the resources.

The drawn-out proceedings involved the filing of a complaint for alleged misconduct, against the temporary deputy magistrate who presided over my case initially, which might have affected the credibility of the judiciary and the right of a person to seek judicial redress.

The complaint was filed some five months ago and the case is still pending. As a member of the Independent Police Complaints Council, I know that all complaints are handled within six months. There are fewer complaints against judges than against police officers (about 5,000 per year), I believe, mainly because most people don't know how to lodge complaints, or they may feel intimidated by the court system.

My case might be slightly uncommon, but had I not insisted on fighting, justice would not have been done. I was stopped by a traffic policeman for allegedly crossing double white lines near Exchange Square in Central. Even though I knew I was in the right, I accepted the traffic ticket and did not argue with the officer.

I immediately filed a written dispute with the central traffic prosecutions division and, if it had carried out its investigation properly, the case would have been dropped.

But the prosecutions division of the Department of Justice also seemed to have a lapse in professional judgment, thus wasting public time and money. A new magistrate assigned to my case eventually ruled in my favour because the officer had given inconsistent evidence. The case exposed a serious manpower shortage problem in the judiciary, which affects the quality of its operations.

The Department of Justice has hired many temporary deputy magistrates to cope with heavy caseloads, in addition to having permanent ones. There are special magistrates, deputy magistrates and deputy special magistrates. It's not unreasonable to suspect that the heavy workload might have affected the individual performance of some part-time magistrates, who might want to process cases quickly because of time constraints. Outgoing Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang has repeatedly said that the increase in political disputes has added an unnecessary burden on the judiciary.

The increased number of judicial reviews in relation to these disputes are a challenge to the courts in the administration of justice. He believes the courts are not the place to address political and social grievances.

If government departments used more common sense and professional knowledge in exercising their duties, instead of passing the buck to the courts, the judiciary would not be so overwhelmed. Hiring temporary magistrates is not the way to deal with a long-term manpower shortage. Some of them, for efficiency's sake, might speed up cases and hence compromise the quality and integrity of the system.

By contrast, the magistrate who ruled in my case was highly experienced, meticulously addressing every detail before reaching the verdict. People like him instil confidence in the judicial system and faith in the rule of law, which is based on the principles of equity and justice.

If public servants could at least try to live up to our expectations, and do their job properly, the courts wouldn't be so stretched and forced to hire temporary magistrates. Their inconsistent qualities and performances might risk damaging the credibility of our judicial system.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator