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Donald Tsang

Donald Tsang case raises questions over judicial system

There is a fine line between exerting undue influence on a trial and showing concern and support for the accused. Any doubts over the integrity of our system must be addressed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 6:51am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 6:51am

It was not a good week for Donald Tsang Yum-kuen. The former Hong Kong leader was not only ordered by the court to fork out a third of the government’s HK$13.7 million legal costs for his long-running bribery trial, he also came under scathing attack by a judge for seeking to influence the jury through the back door with undesirable public relations stunts.

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Whether the allegation is substantiated is open to debate; but it raises key questions about our judicial system. Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai said it came to his attention that prominent figures had been taken into the public gallery by Tsang’s public relations agent. He believed the objective was to impress the jury that the former chief executive was a good person with broad support. This was not much different from mobilising people to come to the court, wearing black clothing to intimidate the witness or the jury, he said. But the claim was dismissed by the figures involved, including former secretary for justice Wong Yan-lung and former finance minister John Tsang Chun-wah. They said they had come to support Tsang on their own.

The allegations are serious. Until there is further evidence, it is difficult to determine whether Tsang had sought to influence the jury. But the judge’s observation is true, it does nothing for the city’s rule of law. Justice Chan said he might have considered discharging the jury had the alleged tactic been brought to his attention earlier. The clarifications from Wong and others are to be welcome. But whether it can clear the air remains to be seen.

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In directing a jury to reach a verdict, a judge is in a position to impress upon the jurors to discard any attempted influence. The jury can also be disbanded for a fresh trial in the event of a serious jury tampering.

Justice Chan noted that England has specific provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that allows judge-only trials on indictment where there is a danger of jury tampering; and he suggested it is perhaps time we consider such an arrangement. But the Hong Kong situation does not seem to be so serious.

Public access to open trials is a core principle of our judicial system. But there is a fine line between exerting undue influence on the trial and showing concern and support for the accused. Any doubts over the integrity of our system must be addressed.