Putonghua is an official language for conducting court proceedings, along with English and Cantonese, the Judiciary has confirmed after a barrister's request to cross-examine a witness in Putonghua caused confusion about whether it was legally permissible. Barrister Stephen Tang Lung-wai last week made the request to question a witness in Putonghua on behalf of three mainland defendants charged with conspiracy to defraud. The issue led to debate on whether Putonghua could be considered an official language in Hong Kong. It is understood there has not yet been a trial heard in Putonghua apart from exceptional cases such as appeal hearings involving unrepresented mainland defendants in right-of-abode cases. According to the Official Languages Ordinance, English and Chinese are the official languages, but the law does not specify whether this means only Cantonese. District Court judge Fergal Sweeney said on Thursday that if called upon, he would rule that Chinese in the Hong Kong context meant Cantonese. He quoted Mr Justice Michael Hartmann's words in a ruling last year that 'our courts allow for two official languages in the spoken form: English and Cantonese'. But the Judiciary has since for the first time publicly endorsed Putonghua as an official language for court proceedings. A spokeswoman, in consultation with the Chief Justice, said that since 'in the Hong Kong context, spoken Chinese usually refers to Cantonese and also includes Putonghua, court proceedings may be conducted in Putonghua'. The Judiciary listed several factors that should to considered when deciding which language is to be used. 'The paramount consideration is the just and expeditious disposal of the case or matter before the court, having regard to all the circumstance of the case,' the spokeswoman said. Factors to be considered include the language ability, wishes and rights of the accused or litigants to instruct a lawyer of choice, and the language ability of witnesses, lawyers and the judge or judicial officer in the case. The volume of documents that might have to be translated and the factual and legal issues in dispute may also be taken into consideration. But even with the endorsement of Putonghua as an official court language, it is unlikely there will be a rush to use it, given the lack of lawyers who speak it. The Judiciary did not have figures on how many judges speak Putonghua, but Bar Association figures show only 79 out of almost 800 barristers claim fluency. Legal experts have also pointed out that conducting trials in Putonghua would mean the entire courtroom, from clerks to recorders, would have to be fluent in the language. With only 34 per cent of the population able to communicate in Putonghua, that would present an impediment.