Hong Kong government urged to provide better court protection for mentally disabled victims

Team of lawyers, social workers and psychologists say victims should be allowed to give evidence through a pre-trial recording so they can avoid pain of being cross-examined

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 6:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 9:43pm

The legal rights of mentally disabled people should be better protected by allowing the admission of hearsay evidence and letting them give evidence through a pre-trial recording, a team of lawyers, social workers and psychologists say.

These are some of the 10 suggestions floated in a preliminary report compiled by the Civil Society Law Reform Committee, which was formed in the wake of a scandal last year involving the Bridge of Rehabilitation nursing home.

Calls for better government supervision of nursing homes and greater protection of vulnerable victims’ legal rights were made last October as a former superintendent at the home for the mentally disabled walked free after a woman under his care was declared unfit to testify in a case involving an alleged sexual assault.

“It is a huge challenge for mentally disabled victims to go through cross-examination as they might suffer a breakdown,” committee member and barrister Linda Wong Shui-hung said. “The truth might be better heard in court if more protection is offered to victims.”

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The court should implement the recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission in 2009 by admitting hearsay evidence – such as video interviews – even if witnesses were unable to attend court cross-examination, she said.

The committee also called on the government to launch a pilot project – similar to those in the UK and Australia – which offer vulnerable witnesses the option of giving evidence via a pre-trial recording as a way to prevent them from being victimised again in court.

A “ground rules hearing” could also be conducted to allow judges and lawyers for the prosecution and defence to have an early opportunity to set down rules dealing with a vulnerable witness or victim at trial, she said.

Apart from legal reform, Dr Phyllis Wong King-shui, an assistant professor in Chinese University’s social work department, urged the government to offer more support to mentally disabled victims of sexual abuse.

“A social worker [from the Social Welfare Department] would be assigned as case manager when an abuse case involving a child is reported,” she said. “But a similar mechanism is unfortunately not offered to mentally disabled victims.”

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The committee plans to solicit opinions from stakeholders and the public through seminars and will meet professional bodies and relevant government departments to push for reform.

Members have already met Director of Public Prosecutions Keith Yeung Kar-hung to discuss their proposals.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law school, agreed the admission of hearsay evidence would help prevent situations similar to the Bridge of Rehabilitation case arising again.

“But the public should not have a perception that all hearsay evidence would be automatically admitted. It should only be accepted in exceptional cases,” he said.

In a paper submitted to the Legislative Council earlier, the Department of Justice pledged to quickly pursue reform of the hearsay law.