Review needed to understand the relatively low rate of convictions at magistrates’ courts

Almost half of those who appear at the lowest tier of our justice system are acquitted, and it has to be asked why that is the case

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 11:05pm

The decision on whether to prosecute someone can be controversial at times. Likewise, the outcome of a trial may also arouse public concern from time to time. In a column in this newspaper last week, former director of public prosecutions Grenville Cross renewed concerns over what he sees as chronically low conviction rates at the magistrates’ courts.

Although the figures for contested trials in the lowest courts crept up from 47 per cent in 2013 to 52 per cent last year, the fact is that almost half of those brought to trial were eventually acquitted. The figures at higher courts during the period were noticeably superior, ranging from 64 to 69 per cent in the Court of First Instance and 70 to 89 per cent in the District Court. The rates even exceeded 90 per cent when including those who pleaded guilty, compared with 70 per cent in the magistrates’ courts.

Hong Kong government seeking to improve prosecution work amid concern at ‘chronically low’ conviction rates in lower courts

This is not the first time conviction rates have been flagged up. A top lawyer drew the ire of judicial administrators in 2009 when he compared the figures in the higher courts to those in North Korea in a law book.

The outcome of a trial depends on various factors, such as the complexity of the case, the evidence available and the experience of the counsels involved. Whether or not there is a jury or legal aid for the accused also plays a part. The conviction rate alone is arguably no measure of justice.

Low conviction rates at Magistrates’ Courts a cause for alarm

That said, if the overall figures of a particular tier consistently differ from others, it is not unreasonable to ask why. Adding to the concerns is the growing trend for the Department of Justice to outsource prosecutions to private lawyers at the lowest courts. The number of court days prosecuted by non-government counsels rose by 9.3 per cent to 5,585 last year. The quality and consistency of prosecutions is a valid issue. The undertaking by the department to improve prosecutorial work is to be welcomed. The administration of justice does not come from convicting defendants at all costs. What matters is that cases at all tiers are handled in a professional and fair manner.