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Hong Kong courts

Time to consider a ban on mobile phones in Hong Kong’s courtrooms says legal scholar, but only for members of the public who come to watch

Legal scholar Eric Cheung suggests it is time for action after several high-profile incidents in the city’s courts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 8:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 2:00pm

Hong Kong’s judges should consider taking action to keep mobile phones in people’s pockets while they are in the city’s courts, but a complete ban would be overdoing it, a legal scholar has suggested.

A criminal lawyer also argued against a total ban, and said it could hinder legal work during a trial, however a partial ban on citizens using their phones could be justified.

The discussion over what is acceptable or not has arisen in the past week after it emerged that Chinese tourists were taking photos of trials and putting them on social media.

Speaking at RTHK’s City Forum on Sunday, Eric Cheung Tat-ming, principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law school, said the main issue was that the court seemingly lacked the experience in how to deal with incidents of mobile phone use by the public.

In one of the more high-profile cases, the judiciary received a photo showing at least four of the nine jurors sitting in a Mong Kok riot hearing. During the trial, one mainlander is believed to have taken a picture in the courtroom and posted it to a social media app. However, the person was not charged.

Hong Kong courts permit members of the public to bring their phones with them while attending a hearing, however it is illegal to take a picture inside the city’s courtrooms and court buildings, with judges able to issue fines. Those responsible can also be charged with contempt of court in severe cases.

‘I’m happy to take pictures with you, judge’

While Cheung said such acts should be taken seriously because they can threaten the system of a jury trial, he warned against a complete ban.

“Our legal system underpins an open court system, so if one cannot even bring their phones to court, it could deter one attending court hearings,” he said.

Lawyers have a duty to handle cases, that’s their job. Citizens have a choice whether to hear a case
Criminal lawyer Kenneth Ng

Instead, he suggested stopping people not involved in the trial from using their phones in “politically sensitive” cases, because in most court cases there would normally be little incentive to take pictures.

The lecturer said it was more a matter of public education, and people should be warned about the consequences of taking photographs of a jury.

Similar offences in Britain have seen the perpetrators jailed for a year.

Barrister and New People’s Party lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan said that mobile phones should be banned when both the prosecution and defence agreed that there was a need to do so.

Criminal lawyer Kenneth Ng Hung Sui, the sector’s representative in the judiciary’s Criminal Court Users’ Committee, believes mobile phone restrictions should be placed on people watching a trial, but not on those actively involved in the court’s business.

“It was legal to text, but it’s hard to tell if one is pointing a phone and taking a picture,” Ng said. “Even if a person is not, its very hard to monitor each and every time.

Photo scandal at Hong Kong court: integrity and jury safety under spotlight after trial

“Lawyers have a duty to handle the cases, that’s their job. Citizens have a choice whether to hear a case.”

Demosisto chairman Ivan Lam Long-yin, who has gone through appeals in High Court for past protests, said it was simply a matter of security guards acting when the need arose.

“It sounds like citizens have more awareness than the guards, which is simply amazing,” he said.