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Hong Kong courts

Hong Kong laws must keep up with the times

The relaxation of the hearsay rule is a case of better late than never. In future, reforms of this kind must be implemented faster to ensure that justice is not delayed – or denied

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 4:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 4:25am

The rule of law is one of Hong Kong’s biggest assets. But the city’s laws will only remain relevant and suited to the world we live in today if they are reviewed and amended from time to time.

This is needed to ensure they keep pace with technological developments and changes in society. Law reform is an area in which Hong Kong often lags behind other parts of the world.

Last week’s gazetting of a bill to relax the hearsay rule for criminal trials is, therefore, welcome. It is long overdue.

The new law, if passed by the Legislative Council, will allow hearsay evidence – including evidence in which witnesses inform the court of things they have been told – to be used in cases if certain conditions apply.

New law on hearsay evidence to protect vulnerable

In the past, such evidence has not been allowed because of concerns that it will lead to injustice. However, the strict rule has inhibited the ability to establish the truth and acted as a barrier to justice in cases involving vulnerable witnesses, such as those who are mentally impaired.

The move to change the law followed concern over the failure to convict the superintendent of a nursing home accused of sexually abusing a 21-year-old woman with a mental age of eight.

The prosecution’s case collapsed in 2016 because the victim was not able to testify on her own behalf. The new law, it is hoped, will allow such cases to proceed with evidence given in other ways.

It has taken far too long for the law to be amended. The Law Reform Commission began considering the hearsay rule in 2001.

It recommended changing the law in a report published in 2009. Since then, implementation has been deferred year after year. The delay is unacceptable.

Care must be taken to ensure that the relaxation of the rule is not abused. It will not be available in every case. There must be sufficient safeguards to ensure such evidence is only used when necessary and reliable.

The use of hearsay evidence will be open to both the prosecution and defence. But it is expected to mostly benefit vulnerable witnesses who are unable to give evidence in the usual way.

Reforming the hearsay laws should be a matter of priority

Everything possible must be done to help such victims receive justice, while safeguarding the rights of the accused.

The new law will bring Hong Kong into step with other parts of the world that have already relaxed the hearsay rule, including Britain and New Zealand.

More attention needs to be paid to law reform. The Law Reform Commission’s carefully researched proposals often take many years to implement, if they are acted on at all.

The commission has recently released a report on outdated sex offences. It should not be allowed to gather dust.

The relaxation of the hearsay rule is a case of better late than never. In future, reforms of this kind must be implemented faster to ensure that justice is not delayed – or denied.