ONCE again the Bill of Rights is having a liberalising influence on the law and the territory's judicial procedures. Last October's public controversy over whether a District Court judge had gone too far in ordering an entire incest trial to be heard behind closed doors clearly played a part in alerting the Legal Department to the importance of openness in the courts. But it is only as part of the general review of the compatibility of laws with the Bill of Rights that the scope for secret hearings has been seriously examined. As a result, law is to be amended. Judge McMahon made his ruling under Section 123 of the Criminal Procedure Ordinance, which allows the court to exclude the public from a trial when it believes that 'it is or may be expedient to do so'. But that provision is so broad it gives judges a virtually free hand to close the courts. This could begin to erode the right of the individual to a fair and public hearing. That right goes back a long way in English law. Lawyers cite the case of Scott v. Scott in 1913, which traced the history of public justice back to the time of the 13th century monarch Edward I and which established the principle that the courts had no power to sit in secret. The few exceptions to this rule included state secrets, and, in divorce proceedings, cases of 'exceptional depravity' (and, because of the embarrassing nature of the evidence, failure to consummate a marriage). Last year's incest trial would not have been included. Intimate and embarrassing details of an incest trial may be, but incest is a criminal matter, not, as in divorce, a question of a private contract between two individuals. The speed with which Judge McMahon reacted to public outrage at his secrecy order and withdrew the decision shows the enormous importance still attached to the principle of public justice in Hong Kong. The fear of its erosion after 1997 makes the Bill of Rights' guarantee of an open hearing still more valuable. The Legal Department's commitment to amend Section 123 to define its scope more narrowly is, therefore, welcome. There are better ways to protect privacy than secret trials. In exceptional circumstances, reporting restrictions may be imposed. But scope for their use be strictly codified and should not go beyond the suppression of names to protect the identity of minors or sexual assault victims. A broader, arbitrary recourse to secrecy in the courts must be avoided.