Thursday, January 18, 2007

Courtroom TV

By Uncle Cheng

Recently there has been some interest in the local press about allowing television cameras into our courtrooms for the broadcast of high profile cases. But what interest there was proved strangely short-lived and evaporated as quickly as it appeared. In some ways I was sorry that the proposal aroused so little public interest because it is an important subject that warrants a full public debate.

The issue entered the public arena after the Lord Chancellor of England had suggested that certain high profile criminal cases might be televised in order to encourage a greater public understanding of the legal system. And because our legal system is a colonial inheritance, it seems only logical that Hong Kong should also consider the pros and cons of court TV.

In fact, our Director of Public Prosecutions Grenville Cross has seemingly voiced his support for reform in this area. He is reported to have said of court TV that "if implemented, it would give the public a far greater awareness of the way in which our criminal justice system operates". Mr Cross's opinion matters because he is a very seasoned criminal lawyer with almost 30 years' experience and is the first post-1997 Director of Public Prosecutions. His opinions always deserve respect and consideration.

For myself I am generally in favour of allowing television into our courtrooms as a matter of principle. However, I do not agree with the Lord Chancellor that only certain high profile criminal cases should be televised. The vast majority of criminal trials are not at all high profile and about 80 percent of all criminal trials in Hong Kong are held in the magistrates' courts. These magistracy cases can be termed as invariably low profile, mundane, and they do not always involve well-known people (such as Jacky Cheung Hok-yau's former helper and a fan of Ella Koon Yun-na) but they often involve the liberty of the subject.

I appreciate that low profile criminal trials may not be very exciting or popular. But I do believe the purpose of introducing television into courtrooms should not be to provide additional entertainment but to educate the public about our legal system. If court TV concentrates only on the high profile cases the result will be a media circus such as that which accompanied the notorious O. J. Simpson trial in the United States a few years ago.

But even before we introduce television into our court rooms there remain many bizarre laws that need to be amended to tune them with the modern world. If you care to look, as an example, at the Summary Offences Ordinance (Cap. 228) Laws of Hong Kong, you might well suffer a temporary shock.

Under that Ordinance a person can be branded as a criminal for taking a photograph in a courtroom or making a sketch portrait of a judge for publication. And the Ordinance defines a "judge" to include justices of the peace! Other equally bizarre laws in the Ordinance include six months' imprisonment for failing to obtain a permit for a unicorn dance! "Taking fish in any water which is private property" is also an imprisonable offence. Why such things need to be listed as separate offences in this day and age is totally beyond any common sense but as a wise man once remarked the law is not necessarily based on common sense.

There are of course cynics who argue that allowing television into courtrooms may not be such a good idea for one unfortunate reason. Do we really want to expose everything that happens in our courts, especially in the magistracies, to real-time public scrutiny? For as the famous English constitutional lawyer Walter Bagehot once observed about exposure of the British monarchy "It might bring out the sunshine on places which are best hidden from view".


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