Trial by jury is one of the oldest and most highly valued features of Hong Kong’s legal system. Members of the public, selected at random, are parachuted into court to consider evidence and return verdicts in the most serious criminal trials. This has been a core feature of the justice system since 1845. It survived the city’s return to China in 1997 and is protected by the Basic Law. But a departure has now been made from the long-standing position that all criminal cases at the Court of First Instance be tried by a jury. The national security law, passed last year, gives the secretary for justice a new power to certify that such trials can, in certain circumstances, be tried by three judges instead of a jury. There had been hopes this power would be rarely, if ever, used. But the justice minister, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, directed there be no jury for the trial of the first person charged under the security law. Last week a court rejected a challenge to the legality of that decision. Tong Ying-kit, 24, will be tried next month on charges of terrorism and incitement to commit secession. He is accused of riding a motorcycle into police officers at a protest on July 1. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to life imprisonment. But there will be no jury. This will be a landmark in Hong Kong’s legal history. The secretary for justice gave two reasons for her decision, the safety of jurors and their families and the risk that the administration of justice might be impaired. She did not provide further details. The Basic Law, introduced when Hong Kong returned to China, provides that “the principle of trial by jury previously practised in Hong Kong shall be maintained”. On the face of it, this suggests, jury trials must be retained for all criminal cases in the Court of First Instance. But Mr Justice Alex Lee Wan-tang, dismissing Tong’s legal challenge, said there was no right to jury trial before the handover and even if he was wrong about that, the national security law had removed that right in relevant cases. This would not conflict with the Basic Law, he said, because the jury system would generally be maintained. The safety of jurors is a valid concern. Courts handling cases arising from the city’s civil unrest in 2019 have often come under fire for their decisions. Judges have sometimes been threatened. In 2018, jurors in a riot trial were secretly photographed and images of four of them emailed to the judiciary in sinister circumstances. The judge provided that jury with 24-hour protection. But the nature of criminal trials is such that jury safety is often a concern. Juries try cases involving triad gangsters, international drug syndicates and terrorist organisations. Steps are taken to ensure their safety, rather than dispensing with the jury altogether. First person charged under Hong Kong’s national security law loses bid for jury trial There may also be concerns that jurors in security trials will be swayed by their personal political views. Jurors, however, take an oath to reach a verdict on the evidence and are directed on the law by a judge. They are required to put their prejudices aside. We must have confidence in them to do that, otherwise the legitimacy of the jury system would crumble. In my 18 years as a court reporter, in London and Hong Kong, I came to value juries. They are the only participants who don’t know the rules of the justice game. That makes them unpredictable. Sometimes they fall asleep, misbehave or reach verdicts that lawyers find hard to understand. But the involvement of the public in the criminal justice process boosts confidence in the system. It allows defendants to be tried by people like themselves, rather than judges. It acts as an important safeguard against injustice and abuse. Jurors in Hong Kong are better educated than elsewhere in the world. They approach this civic duty responsibly and take it very seriously. They can be trusted with security cases. The secretary for justice should use her power to order trials without a jury sparingly, as a last resort.