Hong Kong’s independent prosecutors ‘essential to rule of law’

Legal heavyweights come to defence of profession against complaints over conviction rates and timings of prosecutions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 11:38pm

Hong Kong prosecutors are not persecutors, and nor are they investment managers whose performance can be judged by rates of return, legal heavyweights said in retort to complaints over recent prosecutorial decisions.

Complaints have been levelled about public prosecutors’ progress on the cases related to 2014’s pro-democracy Occupy protests, as well as over the conviction rates in local courts, which some say are worryingly low.

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Observers also blasted the decision to prosecute a 75-year-old charged for selling HK$1 cardboard without a hawking licence.

But speakers at the opening of the Department of Justice’s annual Prosecution Week on Friday demanded respect for prosecutors’ independence, which they said is an important part of the rule of law.

Prosecutions chief Keith Yeung Ka-hung said it was vital for the public to understand that the decisions are based entirely on the law and the facts.

“If any person or entity sees fit to approach us, and try to tell us what to do, we have the constitutional power to say firmly, but if necessary courteously, ‘Thank you and no thank you’,” he said. “We will do what’s deemed appropriate in complying with the rule of law.”

His views were shared by Bar Association chairman Paul Lam Ting-kwok, who said such independence should not be seen as a privilege, but as essential.

The same independence also entails the important corresponding duties for prosecutors not to be influenced by irrelevant considerations like the possible political effect or possible media and public reactions, Lam said.

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Lam said he suspected some of the accusations targeting prosecutors or branding their decisions as political come from a lack of understanding about such independence.

“In order to maintain the rule of law, it is very important for us to defend not just the independence of the judiciary but also the prosecutorial independence,” he said.

“In the absence of good and sufficient reasons, prosecutions must not be misunderstood or misrepresented as persecutions.”

On the subject of the conviction rate, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said that it is “not the duty of the prosecution to secure conviction at all costs”.

“Prosecutors are not investment managers,” Yuen said.

“Their performance should not be judged by reference to the rate of returns, nor should conviction rates be viewed as GDP, such that the higher the conviction rates, the better the prosecutorial system.”

He also said prosecutors could hardly be criticised for starting cases that courts say have sufficient evidence, but which eventually fail – because the standards for commencing a prosecution are different from those for conviction.