The Hong Kong government will fully cooperate with the judiciary as it seeks to work through a backlog of cases arising from months of civil unrest, the city leader has pledged.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday said the city faced “unprecedented challenges” in dealing with the large number of arrests and possible prosecutions over the anti-government protests.
“I am extremely grateful to the judiciary for devising various means at various levels of courts to try to speed up the cases, because we all want justice to be done effectively,” she said, before meeting her advisers at the Executive Council.
Hong Kong has been rocked by anti-government protests since June last year, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill. By January 2, just under 7,000 people had been arrested over the often-violent disturbances, and 1,051 prosecuted.
During an annual ceremony to open the legal year on Monday, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li spoke of a task force which had been set up to explore ways to speed up the trials of defendants charged over demonstrations in the past eight months. One way to speed up the trials is to extend the courts’ working hours.
Lam said it was not the first time the chief justice informed the government of his intention to expedite the trials, adding that the judiciary had asked courts to devise appropriate means to that end.
“The administration will fully cooperate in terms of providing additional resources,” Lam said.
Principal law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) said extra funding could be used to pay court workers’ wages if they were required to put in overtime, while a spokesman for the judiciary said overtime allowances were not applicable to judges or judicial officers.
Cheung added that, since most cases were in their early stages, with prosecutors still in preparation, Ma appeared to be planning ahead.
The proposal would stand or fall on the manpower of judges and magistrates, he said. But the judiciary has struggled for years with recruitment, with only 156 of 218 posts filled as of March 2019.
For most lawyers, joining the bench means losing considerable income from private practice. It can even mean the end of friendships, as they cannot be seen to be too close to former colleagues.
The judiciary sometimes appoints lawyers as deputy magistrates and judges through a temporary scheme, which Cheung noted could be a solution to the current problems.
As of December 31, there were 35 deputy judges and judicial officers from outside the judiciary, including veteran lawyers and retired judges. Another 34 deputy judges and judicial officers were from within.
The daily rate for a deputy judge at the High Court is HK$11,400, while that of a deputy District Court judge is HK$9,280. A deputy magistrate is paid HK$6,175 per day.
But Cheung said the judiciary would be cautious in recruitment, to maintain the quality of the bench.
HKU legal scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun agreed with Cheung on manpower. “Merely extending the court hours without increasing judicial manpower will not solve the problem, as you can’t expect a judge to work continuously for 18 to 20 hours a day,” he said, before noting the potential difficulty of getting lawyers and witnesses to court late at night.
One executive councillor, Ronny Tong Ka-wah said extra funding should not be a problem for the government.
But the senior barrister noted the deputies scheme might not be helpful in the short term, because talented lawyers’ diaries “might be full and any engagement would have been made at least six months or one year prior”.
Ma said on Monday that while it was important to speed up cases, the guarantee of an impartial trial was also important.