In the name of justice, Hong Kong jurors must be free from interference
Open courts ensure transparency in the city’s legal system, and it is of concern that photos of jury members were sent to the judiciary before verdicts were reached in the Mong Kok riot trial
Trial by jury is a fundamental feature of Hong Kong’s common law legal system. It allows public participation in the judicial process, acts as a safeguard against abuse, and generally boosts confidence in the system of justice.
Jurors are required to give up their valuable time to sit in court, listen, and deliver verdicts based on the evidence presented. It is of the greatest importance that they are free from interference or harassment when performing this valuable civic duty.
The covert photographing of jurors and the sending of pictures to the judiciary before verdicts were returned in the Mong Kok riot trial last week is, therefore, a concern.
The motive is unclear, but the circumstances appear sinister. The judiciary complaints office received an email on Friday featuring photos of four of the nine jurors who were, at that time, considering their verdicts. The photographs had been taken in court and the email said “there is a lot more”.
The judge raised the matter in court and closed the public gallery to protect the jury. She also ordered 24-hour police protection for the jurors. These were sensible steps under the circumstances.
Open justice is an important principle ensuring transparency in courts.
The public must be permitted to attend unless there are exceptional reasons for barring them. This time, the ban was brief as the jury soon returned with their verdicts. Now the police must find out who took the photographs and sent the email – and why.
Hong Kong has not, generally, faced the problems other parts of the world have encountered with attempts to interfere with jurors. Any bid to unsettle or intimidate a jury must be taken seriously. In this case, no approach appears to have been made to the jury.
But the nature of the email to the judiciary had the potential to make jurors feel ill at ease. Those responsible must be tracked down and prosecuted, if the evidence supports this. It is an offence to take a photograph in court, but the penalty is only a HK$250 fine.
The circumstances of this case suggest contempt of court proceedings may be justified, which could lead to a prison sentence. This was not the first time for photographs to be taken during the trial. In February a man claiming to be a mainland tourist took pictures and a video with his telephone. The judge said he had made a “careless mistake”. Another photography incident took place in a different case yesterday.
The judiciary must ensure people are aware of the rule that photography and recording are not allowed in court. The signs posted in the court building do not appear to be sufficient. If these incidents continue, security will need to be stepped up.
It may even be necessary to take the drastic step of requiring the public to hand over phones before entering. The principle of open justice must be respected. But jurors are entitled to protection and attempts to intimidate or interfere with a jury cannot be tolerated.