The principle of trial by jury is that it provides for the accused in criminal cases to be tried "by their peers" - people drawn randomly from the community as a whole. For local historical reasons, Hong Kong has in effect departed from it in practice. Jurors must have adequate language skills, which in practice is taken to mean having completed secondary education. So many accused are unlikely to feel they are being tried by people from similar backgrounds. The pool of jurors is further reduced by a wide range of exempted occupations and classes. Only some 714,000 people were on the jury list as at last September, compared with 3.47 million, or five times as many who are registered to vote in elections for the legislature and district councils.
This has prompted University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young Ngai-man to call for the enlargement of the pool of jurors to make the system more representative of society. Hopefully, his comments will spur some action on a report from the Law Reform Commission four years ago on the need to widen the jury pool. The LRC and Young agree on raising the upper age limit for jury service from 65 to 70. But Young disagrees with the LRC's opposition to reducing the educational qualification, as linguistic competence might no longer be reflected by education and, in any case, an increasing number of trials are being conducted in Chinese. Certainly, as higher education standards become more uniform, they open the way to make more people eligible for juries.
Young said a more flexible jury pool could ease the difficulty in recruiting jurors for trials that drag on for a long time. The LRC proposed removing some exemptions, including those for students, clergy and pharmacists. Pruning the list of exemptions would be a step in the right direction. Some are warranted on the grounds of sensitive or essential occupations, but others should not be granted lightly. After all, those exempted or who seek to be excused would not lightly give up their own right to trial by jury.