Televised trials the way to go

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 2:53am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 11:27am

The principle of open justice lies at the heart of our city's legal system. The public and media are generally free to enter our courts - and so they should be. This ensures cases are open to public scrutiny and confidence in the justice system is maintained.

But trials that attract intense public interest put the level of transparency to the test. The corruption case of former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and others is the latest example.

Such a trial is a logistical nightmare for the judiciary. There is not enough space in court to accommodate everyone who wants to be there. Journalists began queuing in the early hours for one of the 15 press seats available. Some slept in their cars. Others missed out altogether. And they face this every day.

There is a better way. Established news organisations that cover the courts on a daily basis should be allocated a seat in advance. Other seats could be booked online.

This would prevent a daily scramble and be more in keeping with the dignity of the court. A relatively small court had been selected because it enabled proceedings to be broadcast to an anteroom at the High Court where 80 more seats were available.

The use of the anteroom was a sensible step by the judiciary to help meet the demand and it worked well. But if the proceedings can be broadcast to a nearby room, why not allow them to be transmitted to the general public either on television or online?

Much of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa has been broadcast on television. It has provided gripping viewing but does not appear to have undermined the interests of justice.

The United Kingdom has recognised the value of televising appeal cases to increase public access. Criminal trials are more sensitive, but Hong Kong should be moving in this direction.

And then there are the reporting restrictions. Writing about an ongoing jury trial can be a dangerous business. There are strict limitations on what can be reported at this stage. Care must be taken not to publish anything that might be deemed to prejudice the trial.

The right to a fair trial is fundamental, and it must be respected. But this can be achieved while also respecting the principle of open justice. Any restrictions should go no further than necessary to achieve that aim.

If the courts are to retain public confidence, they must move with the times. Every means should be used to ensure that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done.