Jurors' exemptions to be challenged

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2007, 12:00am

Law Reform Commission to ask whether certain professions should still be excluded

A consultation paper from the Law Reform Commission is to question whether certain professions should continue to be exempted from jury service.

Under the Jury Ordinance, judges and their spouses, lawyers and officers from the disciplinary forces are exempt. The exemptions also cover many other professions, including doctors, dentists, vets, newspaper editors, pilots, chemists and those in religious positions.

The consultation paper is also expected to give a clearer definition of the required age, educational background, character and residency status for jury service. The document, to be released in a few months time, follows a four-year review by a subcommittee on criteria for jurors, chaired by Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing.

Law Reform Commission secretary Stuart Stoker said it was quite an extensive and odd list of exemptions. 'I think the point is, should all these categories still be exempted?'

He said there were fewer exemptions in some other jurisdictions. 'For instance, in England now, even lawyers and judges are eligible for jury service. It is left to the individual case as to whether or not someone gets an exemption.'

In Hong Kong, the Jury Ordinance states jurors must be Hong Kong residents aged between 21 and 65, of good character and have a sufficient knowledge of the language in which the proceedings are conducted. In practice, only those educated to Form Seven are considered for jury duty. There are about 519,000 people on the judiciary's provisional list of jurors.

The subcommittee was set up in 2004 to look into issues such as the possibility of having disabled people, and those with a lower standard of English as jurors, because more trials are now conducted in Chinese. Its terms of reference were expanded late last year to include consideration of the exemption list, and the review is expected to broaden the current pool of eligible jurors. The Criminal Justice Act of 2003 in England ended exemptions traditionally enjoyed by judges, lawyers, the police and some other professions. The change was made in response to criticism that juries had been unable to represent society, as a significant proportion of the middle class was exempted.

But the reform was challenged by convicted criminals in three test cases in the House of Lords last month. In two of these, the prisoners said their right to a fair trial was breached, because their juries had included a police officer. The third challenge was brought on the grounds that the jury included a lawyer in the Crown Prosecution Service.

In Hong Kong, former principal magistrate Ian Candy said: 'There's no reason why policemen shouldn't be able to perform as jurors and do their duty properly in the same way as any other citizens. I don't think policemen are any more biased than anybody else.'

He dismissed concerns that other members would be swayed by a judge or lawyer on a jury. 'It is a duty to be independent in the exercise of their own mind, and not just agree with somebody else, or be swayed by somebody else,' he said. 'Why should I be in any different position from you? I heard the evidence, I can make up my own mind, and so can you,' he said.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the exemption list was seriously outdated. 'Many years ago, there was a serious lack of people in some professions. There had been a time when even teachers were exempted from jury service.' He said the exemption list should be shortened now.

However, he believed that the exemptions for lawyers and judges and their spouses should continue, to avoid other jurors being influenced by the opinion of a legal expert.

The ins and outs of jury selection

Exempted: judges, registrars, coroners, magistrates, judges' spouses; legal and anti-corruption officials; disciplinary services officers; consuls and officers of overseas states; barristers, solicitors and their clerks; doctors, dentists, vets, chemists; newspaper editors and their staff; religious figures; full-time students; navigators, pilots and full-time flight crew officers.

Jurors' qualifications:

1 Hong Kong residents, aged 21 to 65

2 Must be of sound mind and not afflicted by blindness, deafness or other disability

3 Be of good character

4 Have a sufficient knowledge of the language in which the proceedings are conducted to be able to understand them.