Reporting of committal proceedings – basically all the hearings before the start of the actual trial – is restricted to bare details of names, charges and decisions on bail. But the restrictions can be lifted under some circumstances.

Activist Chow Hang-tung, who stands accused of subversion under the national security law, applied for such limitations to be lifted. However, Principal Magistrate Peter Law, one of our – or rather their – national security specialists, supposed he had complete discretion in the matter and announced that the usual restrictions on reporting would remain.

Photo: Court of Final Appeal.

This was, arguably, an error. This is not an obscure or controversial matter. The law is of considerable antiquity and it is quite clear. If the defendant – or, if there is more than one defendant, any one of them – wishes to have the reporting restrictions lifted then they must be lifted.

Law’s ruling was a small personal embarrassment because I taught this stuff for years, and always included the bit about restrictions being lifted if the accused person wished it.

However, Chow – who is also a barrister – took the matter to the High Court by seeking a judicial review of the decision. It appears that Chow, unlike many of our learned magistrates, can read the Magistrates Ordinance and has done so.

The application was a complete success. Judge Alex Lee ruled that the magistrate had exceeded his authority by refusing to lift the restrictions. “The magistrate has no discretion but to lift the reporting restrictions at the instance of the accused,” said the judge, adding that the magistrate’s approach to the matter was “totally in opposition to the principles of open justice.”

Disgracefully, the magistrate’s arbitrary action was defended by the counsel for the Secretary for Justice, who contended that “lifting the restrictions would frustrate the ultimate aim of doing justice.”

Chow Hang-tung. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

It seems that both Law and the Department of Justice were under the impression that the restrictions on reporting are intended for the protection of prosecution witnesses. This is not the case.

The purpose of the restrictions is to protect the defendant. In the old days the prosecution evidence was given in great detail during committal proceedings, while for tactical reasons the defence said little. The unintended but inevitable result of this arrangement was that reports of the proceedings were heavily biased against the defence.

So the idea of the restriction is to prevent the defendant from being disadvantaged at his trial. You can actually report all the committal proceedings after the trial has taken place, which is occasionally useful if the defendant pleads guilty and the prosecution evidence is not needed at the full trial.

Clearly this arrangement conflicts with the principle that justice should be public; so the defendant is given the choice. They may – if convinced that this will help, or not harm, the defence – ask for the committal hearing to be reportable as other hearings are.

There are a variety of reasons the defence might think publicity helpful, though discouraging prosecution witnesses is not usually given as one of them.

Principal Magistrate Peter Law. Photo: Judiciary.

But the court has no discretion in the matter, however dubious the defendant’s decision may be. In one notorious English case a defendant was paid by an eager newspaper to get the restrictions lifted. And they were.

Actually in Hong Kong these days the restrictions on reporting of committal proceedings have become pointless. The prosecution submits its case on paper and witnesses are not heard.

Moreover the defendant has often already been prejudiced because soon after his arrest the police generally outline what is effect going to be the prosecution case in a press briefing. This used to be harmless, at least in theory, because names or other identifying details of those arrested were not included. Times have changed.

So all this is not going to make a great deal of difference. It does mean we shall be able to read reports of the prosecution’s limp excuses for not being ready for trial months or years after the date of the alleged offence.

I gather from a recent speech by the new Secretary for Justice that his department now recognises that this is a problem. This enlightenment also has been much delayed.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.