Yeung Pok-man after his sentencing in Fanling Court. Magistrate Debbie Ng remanded him to a psychiatric hospital before sentencing, a decision a panel of judges deemed a “serious error”. Photo: SCMP/ K. Y. Cheng
by SCMP Editorial
by SCMP Editorial

Hong Kong’s ability to rectify judicial errors is a sign of strength

  • It is unfortunate when a magistrate or judge makes a mistake but with a robust system in place to deal with complaints and remedy such flaws, steps can be taken to ensure there is no repetition

Hong Kong’s courts have frequently been subjected to strong criticism in recent years when deciding politically sensitive cases. Thousands of complaints have been made against members of the judiciary, usually by people unhappy with the outcome of a case. These have often been misconceived, politically motivated or both.

The overwhelming majority have been unjustified. But that does not mean judges and magistrates are immune from criticism or that they never make mistakes.

The conduct of one magistrate highlighted in the judiciary’s response to a complaint falls far short of the high standards expected of the city’s courts.

Debbie Ng Chung-yee jailed a teacher for nine weeks in 2020 after convicting him of assaulting a police officer during civil unrest the previous year. But it was not the guilty verdict or sentence that troubled the panel of judges considering complaints against Ng.

The Law Courts Building in Fanling. Photo: SCMP / Winson Wong

The problem was the magistrate’s decision to detain the teacher in a psychiatric hospital prior to his being sentenced, for reports on his mental state to be prepared.

Ng had wrongly based her decision on the teacher’s claim to have feared police officers who stopped him would throw him off a bridge. The panel said this decision was a “serious error” as there was no objective basis for believing the defendant to be mentally unstable. It suggested the chief magistrate strongly advise Ng to reflect on her conduct and avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Formal complaints against Ng, including those of bias, were, however, rejected. She did not deliberately abuse her position or act maliciously.

Magistrates have faced a heavy workload trying cases arising from the unrest in 2019. They have even been subjected to threats. It has been a challenging time. But the decisions they make, often involving a person’s liberty, are of great importance.

They must be handled with care and common sense.

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Ng’s belief that the teacher suffered from mental illness was not supported by expert evidence. The magistrate’s decision to revoke his bail and send him to a psychiatric centre, where he spent six days, is extraordinary. It is to be hoped that Ng will learn from this mistake.

Such conduct does not reflect well on the judiciary. But the system at least ensured the teacher was released from the hospital by a higher court. And the matter was considered by the complaints panel, which suggested further action be taken.

The judiciary has taken steps to show it is responding to complaints. There is greater transparency now and a new high-level advisory committee has been formed. Mistakes of this kind should not occur. But when they do, it is important that they are quickly remedied and steps taken to ensure they are not repeated.