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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

Hong Kong courts ‘could adopt remote hearings next year’ for criminal proceedings

Hong Kong courts ‘could adopt remote hearings next year’ for criminal proceedings

Proposed legislation for remote hearing to be introduced to Legislative Council by fourth quarter of this year, with judiciary aiming to implement approved version after six months.

Hong Kong courts could adopt the use of remote hearings as soon as next year for various criminal proceedings, but will stop short of allowing the practice at trials, the city’s judiciary has said.

In a paper from Wednesday night seeking the views of local lawmakers on a bill allowing the practice, judicial authorities said the proposed legislation would be introduced to the Legislation Council during the fourth quarter of this year and aimed to implement it six months after it was enacted.

“The judiciary intends to introduce the bill to provide a comprehensive legal framework concerning the application, operation and effect of remote hearings for court proceedings in Hong Kong,” they wrote.

Under the current system, remote hearings are generally considered unsuitable for most criminal cases since a defendant’s physical presence is required at different stages of the proceedings, such as arraignment and trial.

The proposed legislation stated that courts would need to consider a number of factors before allowing a remote hearing, such as whether the right to a fair trial could be maintained, the availability of those involved, as well as the security and quality of the alternative facilities used.

Courts would also consider the preference of defendants as part of the process, it said.

As the physical presence of a defendant was deemed to be of “actual significance”, the bill also proposed that remote hearings not be used for criminal trials and stressed that the practice would only be allowed under exceptional circumstances.

The West Kowloon Law Courts Building in Cheung Sha Wan.

Citing the authorisation of more than 1,660 remote hearings during civil proceedings since April 2020, the judiciary said the bill was part of efforts to increase the use of technology and improve the efficiency of court operations.

“The bill seeks to meet the rising expectations of court users and the community for an increased use of technology in the conduct of court business, and more convenient and efficient communications between the courts and court users,” it said.

“This would also enable the courts to better tackle unforeseen and complicated situations such as pandemics.”

The judiciary added that the proposed legislation would provide a clear legal basis for when remote hearings could be used at various court and tribunal levels.

Last year, the Post found that the city’s Law Society had worked with the judiciary on the proposal after the city’s fifth coronavirus wave at the start of 2022 forced courts to adjourn proceedings.

According to Wednesday’s document, two rounds of consultations were held in 2021 and 2022 to discuss the proposal, with the judiciary receiving 22 written submissions from 17 organisations and five individuals. It described the responses as positive.

The judiciary also emphasised that in-person hearings should be considered the most ideal practice, while any decision to allow remote hearings did not mean entire proceedings would be held virtually.

Those taking part remotely would have to comply with the same requirements for appearing in-person, with the city’s laws concerning matters such as giving evidence, contempt of court and perjury applying even in the hearings held overseas, it said.

Anyone required to send or sign a document, or present an object, could do so by electronic means if allowed by the court, the judiciary added.

However, the paper said live audio links were not considered appropriate for criminal proceedings since courts needed to ensure defendants were not being subject to any pressure or influence in relation to their case.

Remote hearings should also not be used when a defendant’s first appears before a magistrate, according to the document.

“The magistrate should have the opportunity to see the defendant physically in court, particularly when there are complaints about improper treatment by the law enforcement agencies during his remand, and when hearing for the first time any bail application of the defendant,” it said.

Defendants should also be physically present at court while making a plea or receiving verdicts and sentences unless otherwise allowed, the paper added.

The judiciary also said that anyone who wished to observe proceedings remotely would have to register with courts in advance, with attendees required to mute their microphones and turn off their cameras.

As part of the proposed bill, the judiciary suggested criminalising any unauthorised recording, publishing or broadcasting of remote hearings.


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