High time 'for courts to come of age'

The courts should "move on from dinosaur age" and speed up the development of electronic services in the wake of the city's judicial system being paralyzed during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Ambrose Lam San-keung, who represents the legal sector in the Legislative Council.

Lam, a solicitor, told The Standard that 18 percent of all court cases were severely delayed and impacted in 2020.

"In the midst of the fifth wave in April 2022, the problem was exacerbated as the courts went further to announce they would no longer receive physical copies of documents, providing no viable alternatives to the receiving and delivery of electronic documents, and rejected the use of email correspondences, all of which led to turmoil in the judicial system," he said.

Lam said many arbitration organizations in the SAR adopted the use of electronic documents during the same period, and no problems related to confidentiality have arisen from the new methods.

"Is there any legitimate basis as to why the courts in Hong Kong, which are supposed to act in an open and transparent manner, find the use of electronic documents problematic?" he said. "Countries, including Singapore, Dubai and the mainland, have led in progressive reforms on the digitalization of their court systems, leaving Hong Kong far behind."

Lam said Singapore pioneered the adoption of an electronic filing system as early as the 2000s, while online hearings have been widely adopted in the mainland.

"They went so far as to adopt technology that would help transcribe hearings into reports, and these records would then be handed over to both the prosecution and the defense for confirmation purposes at the end of the same day," he said.

"The use of such digital devices and technologies in the courts significantly shortened the time needed to process legal documents and correspondences."

Lam also said Hong Kong is suffering from a lack of judges, adding that the judiciary's annual reports in past years showed the average waiting time for a criminal hearing to be scheduled in the high court was 383 days while that for civil hearings was between 90 and 180 days.

He would raise the issue in a meeting of the subcommittee on proposed senior judicial appointments today.

Lawyers also said that in some cases, judgments were only handed down one to three years after the hearings were completed, he said.

"As a practicing lawyer of more than 30 years, I find the situation astonishing and concerning - for we pride ourselves on the rule of law in Hong Kong, because we have impartial, just and fair procedures in the courts," Lam said.

"The lack of judges and prosecutors might lead to irreparable damage to rule of law, but these problems are not without solutions."

Hong Kong should act promptly to fully develop the SAR as the "center of international legal and dispute resolution service" in the Asia-Pacific region and a world-renowned legal service center providing exceptional legal services, he said.