MR JUSTICE SEARS MOST punters would not have fancied the chances of prisoner Chim Shing-chung winning his court battle against newspaper censorship. Chim is currently serving an eight-year jail term in Stanley Prison for drug trafficking and has a string of previous convictions. His legal challenge to the Correctional Services Department (CSD) policy of removing the racing supplement of prisoners' newspapers was launched from his cell. Chim had to answer claims by the Commissioner of Correctional Services that the ban on racing sections was vital if illegal gambling in prisons is to be curbed. He had to show that the censorship had no basis in law and was not a justified breach of a citizen's right to free access of information. If recent form in the courts were studied, it would be seen that the Government does not often lose in situations where its objectives clash with the Bill of Rights. But this was one case where, subject to any appeal decision, the individual has triumphed over the state. Mr Justice Sears ruled that the censorship was unlawful, unwarranted and illogical. His judgment was not just important for incarcerated race fans who have been deprived of the latest tips. It struck a timely blow for the Bill of Rights and reminded government departments that the basic rights of citizens cannot be interfered with, even those of criminals serving prison sentences. It is ironic that the High Court case fell to be decided by a judge who is perhaps better known than any other member of the judiciary for his love of horse-racing. Mr Justice Sears declared his interest when the case was still under starters orders. 'I am a member of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club and I do attend race meetings and read racing information in the newspapers. 'Do you have any objection to me going on with case?' he asked. Lawyers for both sides said they did not. The judge then embarked upon the case with obvious enthusiasm, bringing his superior knowledge of the racing world to bear whenever appropriate. The names of the newspaper tipsters rolled off his tongue as did talk of exotic bets, gallops, jockeys and the precise information available in the racing sections on particular days. Mr Justice Sears was handed a number of racing pages in court. He studied the advice of one tipster and wryly observed that if prisoners had used this to gamble they would not have been very successful. The judge brought a human element to the case which is often missing when important legal matters come to be decided by the courts. Mr Justice Sears said that to people who are free, the loss of the racing section may be no more than a minor irritation. But to a prisoner faced with the tedium of life behind bars, it could be a very important matter. It was natural for Chim to be upset about having the 'nice little racing section' removed. The prisoner had spent two years in Stanley Prison in 1983 and 1984. He was back behind bars between 1985 and 1988. A further spell in jail was in 1991 and 1992. His current sentence was imposed in October last year. Clearly there is little that he has in common with the judge. Mr Justice Sears was born in England, called to the bar at Gray's Inn in 1957, and was made a QC in 1975. He was appointed to the Hong Kong bench in 1986. But the two men share an enthusiasm for horse racing. Chim, in a statement handed to the judge, said he had been a keen race fan for 20 years. He stressed that he was not involved in any gambling syndicate but enjoyed following the horse-racing news. Chim, regarded as a model prisoner in the eyes of prison staff, said he relieved the boredom of life behind bars by trying to pick winners in the races and placing imaginary bets. Cynics may not be impressed with this explanation. But Mr Justice Sears said he, too, liked to have an imaginary gamble. He told counsel: 'I read the Sporting Life which is delivered to the Hong Kong Club. 'I look through the races to see whether I can pick out the winners. The next day I look and see what happened. I say to myself 'that's jolly good, I've picked out a winner and two seconds'. 'But I have not gambled on anything.' The judge made it clear that although the case dealt with what, in a sense, was a trivial matter, the implications of the CSD censorship were very important. He said: 'Newspapers play an important role in a democratic society. They not only provide information but reveal injustice and prevent abuses by persons in power. 'In Hong Kong we have a free and vigorous press with a wide range of Chinese and English newspapers. 'Those who interfere in the freedom of the press do so at their peril.' The judge warned that censorship of horse racing information can turn into censorship of political information. 'Our Bill of Rights, currently under attack, must be protected by the courts,' he added. The Government is allowed to pursue a policy which infringes on freedoms protected in the Bill or Rights so long as it can show that this is necessary in order to achieve a legitimate aim. This get-out clause is open to wide interpretation and has been used by the Court of Appeal to overturn decisions made in relation to laws which have been ruled to conflict with the Bill of Rights. Mr Justice Sears said the removal of racing supplements was unnecessary and there was no evidence to show that it was a useful weapon in the fight against illegal gambling. Senior CSD officers are currently weighing up the odds to see whether an appeal should be pursued.