Will High Court selfie scandal spawn a new brand of snap-happy justice?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 9:29am

There are few places today where you can escape the selfie craze. From fine-dining restaurants to remote hilltops, nowhere is free from the smartphone-snapping hordes, it seems.

But Hong Kong’s court buildings are usually an exception.

Taking snaps in court is forbidden. There is a law against it – and every self-respecting court reporter knows this. So it is surprising to see the golden rule broken this week by none other than a former president of the Law Society.

High Court selfie lands Hong Kong lawyer in hot water

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, a law firm partner with more than 20 years experience, snapped a shot of himself inside the High Court and posted it on Facebook. The picture is still there.

It is very much in keeping with the familiar selfie style, but usually it is the Eiffel Tower or Angkor Wat in the background – not Court 28.

Ho is pictured gesturing with his thumb towards the courtroom. The post includes a message which reads: “Inside Court No. 28 … hang in there Uncle Pui!”

He seems to have intended the post to be taken in a light-hearted way. Perhaps the idea was to cheer up a client who had been refused bail.

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Ho has defended his actions, arguing that the selfie is “absolutely nothing inappropriate” and that the law against taking pictures in court is aimed at people interrupting the proceedings.

Well, he is the lawyer. I would, however, question his interpretation of Section 7 of the Summary Offences Ordinance which simply states that any person who takes a photograph in any court or publishes such a photo is liable to a fine of HK$250.

It goes on to define “court” as including not only the courtrooms but also the court building or precincts. It looks very much like a total ban.

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If Ho is right and in-court selfies are allowed, it could spawn a whole new genre of smartphone photography. Imagine the defence barrister in wig and gown punching the air in celebration while posing for a selfie outside the court where he has just secured the acquittal of an alleged murderer.

Or maybe we will see judges surreptitiously reaching for their smartphones while delivering a landmark judgement. Pictures might be taken by lawyers filing their greatest writs.

It is the prospect of selfie mania descending on the courts, undermining the dignity of the proceedings, which might cause the legal profession’s leading lights to be concerned.

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But there is something to be said for allowing the courts to move with the times – and the technology. The Hong Kong law against taking pictures is lifted from Britain’s Criminal Justice Act 1925. The British law was introduced at a time when the emergence of more portable cameras was leading to pictures being taken in court by the media, notably in the notorious murder case of Dr Crippen in 1910.

More recently in the UK, a teenager was jailed for two months for contempt of court after interrupting proceedings and using his Blackberry to take a picture of a robbery victim.

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In 2014, another teenager took a picture of himself and four co-defendants during their trial. He then tweeted the shot with the caption: “Lads in the court box lol.” This, not surprisingly, landed him a fine.

It is important to protect the dignity of legal proceedings. But whether a total ban on taking pictures in court buildings is still needed is open to question.

Justice, it is said, must be seen to be done. Perhaps the odd selfie or two can help.