Hong Kong courts must open up about their work, and this means joining social media
Cliff Buddle says judges have been attacked for recent rulings, but scant attention is given to the reasoning behind judgments. To educate the public, the judiciary should get on social media platforms and even consider a bold move Britain has made – allowing filming in courts
An online game called You be the Judge allows players to view video reconstructions of criminal cases and deliver their own sentences. They can then compare the penalty they imposed with the one actually passed by the court. You won’t find this in your local video game store. It was created by Britain’s Ministry of Justice.
The game, which features manslaughter, drug and burglary cases, among others, appears on an “open justice” website and is part of an effort to educate people about the way courts approach sentencing. We need some of that education in Hong Kong.
Critics of court rulings in the city have been playing their own twisted version of “You be the judge” in recent years. Savage criticism has, at times, been directed at the courts by people unhappy with their judgments. Some judges have been subjected to abuse and threats. The attacks usually follow politically sensitive cases, with the focus entirely on the outcome. Not much attention is paid to the legal reasoning behind it.
The latest controversy saw politician Stanley Ng Chau-pei, a Hong Kong delegate to the national legislature, slamming the city’s top court for overturning jail terms imposed on 13 protesters. This followed a similar ruling by the Court of Final Appeal in February in which student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and two fellow demonstrators also had prison terms quashed.
Ng branded the judges “sinners of society” and “killers of young people” in a Facebook post. The court’s decision would “poison a generation of young people”, he added, calling on people to reflect on the fall of the rule of law. Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, defended the court. She said: “It is unacceptable for people to make inappropriate comments over court decisions, to vilify the judges in contempt of court, or even to launch personal attacks against a particular judge because they are unhappy with the judgment.”
Watch: Hong Kong's Chief Justice underscores importance of city's common law system
It is important that the government defend the judges when they come under attack. But the abuse of judges shows no sign of abating. Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li has used his speech at the opening of the new legal year to call for rational and well-informed reactions to court decisions. “I fully accept the right of people to comment on the work of the courts, but of course hope that such comments, whether in criticism or even praise, should be informed and measured,” he said last year.
This year, the top judge stressed the transparency of Hong Kong’s legal system. He urged people to read the judgments and try to understand the reasoning behind them before commenting. The top judge added: “The answer to the question of why and how courts have arrived at their decisions is plain for everyone to see.”
But this is an area in which the judiciary can do more. Court judgments are almost always delivered in public. They can later be found on the judiciary’s website, where there is a database for rulings. There is a section for recently delivered judgments, which is helpful. But the database is not particularly user-friendly.
And sometimes there is a delay before the judgment is available. The Court of Final Appeal’s reasoning in this month’s protest case has not yet been delivered. When student activist Wong and others were jailed by the Court of Appeal in August last year, it was two weeks before an English-language version of the ruling was available. This was significant because the sentences were, in the meantime, subjected to criticism overseas.
Court judgments are by nature complex. Some of them run to more than a hundred pages. They are not always easy to understand. The Court of Final Appeal publishes summaries of some judgments. This helps clarify the key issues and should become standard practice. But more can be done.
Bolder measures are needed if the public is to better understand how courts work. Hong Kong often looks to Britain for inspiration and there are some lessons it could learn. Supreme Court hearings in Britain have been live-streamed since 2014. The court has a video archive and a YouTube channel. It is much easier for people to understand the workings of the court and the reasons behind a decision if they can see what is going on. They are more likely to watch a video than read a judgment.
Watch: Britain’s Supreme Court produces an introductory video on its work
Britain has expanded the filming of court cases to the Court of Appeal. A recent pilot programme went further, allowing the filming of sentencing remarks in criminal courts. No cameras are allowed in Hong Kong’s courtrooms. All sorts of concerns will be raised about televising cases, from the impact on victims and witnesses to fears of lawyers playing to the camera. But such concerns have been overcome in Britain. Why not in Hong Kong?
Perhaps a start could be made by filming the delivery of judgments in the Court of Final Appeal. This was the first step taken in Britain. Most cases in the top court are in English, so subtitles would be needed. But such a step would surely help improve understanding of how the court arrives at its decisions.
The British Supreme Court also has a Twitter account on which it posts judgments and keeps social media users informed of developments in the court, as does the judiciary. Britain’s Ministry of Justice is on Facebook, too.
No doubt, there would be some trolling if the judiciary in Hong Kong joined social media platforms. But social media is where most people access information. If you want them to read court judgments and better understand the workings of the judiciary, social media platforms are essential.
Perhaps there is even room for an interactive online game. Britain’s You be the Judge game helps people understand the complex nature of sentencing and the different factors which courts need to weigh. The game was played by 74,000 people between 2010 and 2012, with 45 per cent being more lenient than the real-life judge.
Those with political motives will, no doubt, continue to hit out at court rulings they don’t like no matter how much education takes place. But the judiciary should be doing everything it can to ensure the community understands how judges work – and how they arrive at their decisions.
Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor of special projects