As this week has shown, Hong Kong's cherished personal freedoms may not all be as assured as the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration had once led people to believe. Given China's evident view of the relative weight of the two elements that make up the 'one country, two systems' formulation, the remarks by Vice-Premier Qian Qichen about Hong Kong may not have been as surprising as the immediate reaction here suggested. But that does not make them any less of an indication of how Beijing may seek to change Hong Kong laws in nine months time. This makes it all the more important to reinforce liberties which are crucial to stability and good governance in the territory. An integral element is to ensure that the existing legal system and the way it operates are thoroughly open, and truly serve the community in a transparent manner. The Campaign for Open Justice in the Post this week was motivated by the apparent danger that matters were moving in the opposite direction - for instance in holding trials behind closed doors and restricting access to charge sheets. Fortunately, officials have recognised the pitfalls of this policy, whatever their original motivation. In the last few days, they have indicated a return to the more open approach which is fundamental to the rule of law. This is an encouraging response, but there is still some way to go towards conducting judicial affairs in an automatically open and transparent manner. Justice may be blind, but it cannot function in the dark. The rights of a defendant are not compromised if the crime he is charged with and his personal details are made public. Many political prisoners in totalitarian states would be only too relieved if the full facts of their cases could be published, so that the public might know the nature of their alleged offences - and could judge the fairness of the accusations and trial. Visible justice is a cornerstone of a truly free society, which is why the wide use of hearing behind closed doors - sometimes on the flimsiest of pretexts - is so worrying. In several cases, the only reason appears to have been to enable the judge to hear the evidence without changing into robes. This then places the trial under a controversial rule called Practice Direction 27, which bans parties involved from revealing the proceedings. Clearly, the practice is a nonsense under those circumstances, and one which, if allowed to continue unchallenged, could set precedent for other cases to be held in camera. There are certainly instances where it is not in the public interest to disclose full details in open court - if there is genuine concern for the safety of the defendant or witnesses, secrecy about personal details is justified. But a judge is always able to direct the press that some aspects of a case should not be reported, and the reasons for his ruling will be made known. The acting Chief Justice Noel Power has now set up a working party to investigate the circumstances under which trials are conducted in chambers, and to consider any necessary changes in law and practice. This constituted his first policy statement since becoming acting Chief Justice last month, and it is an indication that he intends to give swift and strong direction to the courts. Last week, a Post survey showed that 234 cases were heard in private in the Supreme and District courts. In how many of these cases was secrecy justified? It is difficult to know because of a basic lack of information inherent in such procedures. Most countries which follow English law are scrupulous in allowing public right of access to records, but Hong Kong denies access to court records of verdicts and sentences. The Bill of Rights, which is a key to the maintenance of justice, states the right of the individual to a public trial. This helps to bolster confidence that the legal system is open, objective and scrupulously impartial, dispensing justice in the full light of day. Such confidence should be an essential element in Hong Kong's future. Some academics and legal experts claim that Hong Kong's judiciary is becoming 'sloppy' in observing due process of law. If they are right, this is not the moment in the territory's history when slackness can be excused.