Courts in the dark ages when it comes to communications, say experts

No tweeting, texting or even drawing allowed, leading bemused observers to say it's time rules caught up with the 21st century

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 4:14am

When it comes to information technology, Hong Kong's courts are years behind others the world over, say two legal scholars calling for a review of the judiciary's policy on the use of communication tools in court.

The city's courts forbid any form of live text-based communication, including sending e-mails and Twitter reporting.

Drawing is not allowed in court; photography is banned even in the hallways, and even the judiciary's website is outdated and user-unfriendly, the scholars say.

"Hong Kong's judiciary has not kept up with technological advances adopted by other modern societies to help citizens and journalists monitor and report on how justice is administered in the courts," said University of Hong Kong media law professor Doreen Weisenhaus.

She said Britain's Supreme Court judges began reading out judgment summaries on video-sharing website YouTube early this year. Supreme Court hearings had been made available live online since 2011, and people in court were generally free to send and receive texts.

"This is the 21st century. This is how journalists work. Live text-based communication is taking place anyway - whether the journalists do it in the courtroom or they go outside to send the text through," said Weisenhaus, a former US prosecutor.

In 2011, in response to a South China Morning Post inquiry on the use of such communication in court, the judiciary said it would note developments in other jurisdictions. But 2-1/2 years on, responding to the latest inquiry, it said: "At present, as a standing practice, all mobile phones must be switched off and text-based communication is not allowed inside courtrooms in order not to disturb court proceedings."

The judiciary added phone use was banned because it would interfere with the court recording system and tablet computers connected to the internet were not allowed in court.

"That's really bizarre," said law professor Simon Young when he heard about the rule against tablet computers, adding he also believed some restrictions on manners in court were obsolete and out of proportion.

Both Young and Weisenhaus said the judiciary's concern about interference to the court recording system would soon be eliminated after the government's announcement last month that Wi-fi would gradually be enabled in the city's courts.

"I find it strange that people are not allowed to draw pictures of people in court," Young said.

Caricaturists must leave the court and draw from memory.

The judiciary also failed to engage court users online, he said.

"It's obvious when we compare the Court of Final Appeal's website to the websites of other jurisdictions' final courts of appeal," Young said. "There is not much information [on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal's website], and it is also not very user-friendly. There is no option for the public to sign up for alerts on the latest news."

Weisenhaus suggested the judiciary allow texting and use of cameras in the Court of Final Appeal first, and then extend it to the lower courts.

"Court of Final Appeal cases frequently feature matters of public interest and can involve constitutional challenges. The public should be encouraged to engage in these cases," she said.

Young agreed. "Court of Final Appeal cases are of great importance. The public wants to know the details as quickly as possible," he said.

Weisenhaus said the essential and critical role of rule of law in Hong Kong demanded its judiciary find better ways to engage the community. She said the judiciary should also make court files more available to the public to enhance transparency.

In the United States, access to court files is extensive and often free. In Hong Kong, people are charged an inspection fee and only limited documents are available. Those relating to criminal trials and subsequent appeals, apart from the judgments, are all kept out of public sight.

"Court files of public proceedings should be available to the public and especially the press, not only after the trial but also when the trial is going on," Weisenhaus said.

In US federal courts, the media typically had access to daily trial transcripts and lawyer filings so they could be more accurate in their reporting, she said.

A spokesman for the judiciary said the prevailing restrictions that applied to court practice were reviewed from time to time.

"The judiciary is now in the process of drawing up relevant guidelines for reference by court users," he said. "However, at present, we have no plans to introduce video broadcasting relating to CFA proceedings."