Social Celebrities Attending Court Trial

The former Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen who was accused of accepting benefits from Wave Media was not convicted at the jury trial in 2018. The issue of social celebrities attending jury trials for defendants raised many discussions.

It may be a possibility that the attendance of most social celebrities in a jury trial, seated at the areas exclusively for the relatives and families of defendant, may induce jurors, who are ordinary people, to believe the defendant is a good man; the chance for the defendant to commit the offence is low, and hence he may not be guilty. 

We must balance the interests of both the prosecution and the defendant. Donald was the number one official in Hong Kong, so most of his friends should be the social celebrities. Their showing up in court is one of the ways to show their generous support to Donald.

If the social celebrities are disallowed to attend court trials, support given by friends to the defendant may be deprived, it may be unfair to the defendant. It may also deprive the right of general public to attend court to hear legal trial at any time they wish (the right of public hearing).

Anyway, there are two sides to this issue. The problem with attendance of social celebrities in court is not an easy question for both the prosecution and the defendant. To ensure the jury is only adjudicating the case in accordance with evidence, if there is any dispute before the real trial, a mini-legal trial may be held. The court may decide who is entitled to show up in the court room. The demerits of mini-legal trial are increasing the litigation time and cost.

If only the families and relatives can stay in the court room, the general public should be excluded. How do we protect the right of public hearing? If we visit the website of Hong Kong judiciary, at the page “Technology Court”, SNAPSHOT – COURT PROCEEDINGS BROADCASTING SYSTEM”, it states,  

“Technology Court is equipped with a Proceedings Broadcasting System in situations where people cannot be all accommodated inside courtroom.

If the trial judge so wishes, the court waiting area outside the Technology Court can immediately be converted into an extension of this court.

Once the broadcasting system is activated, those seats in the court waiting area can view the court proceedings inside the courtroom on the projection screen and LCD monitors there.”

If the social celebrities are required to sit at waiting areas outside the Technology Court, it can eliminate the adverse effects mentioned above because only the necessary parties can show up in court room. However, the argument that the defendant fails to see his friends in court room and hence loses support from them in legal trial is not well handled.

Technology Court may be both problems and solutions for the protection of right of public hearing. Not all courts have the broadcasting systems. If we put this suggestion into practice, should all courts install broadcasting systems? If there is no broadcasting system, should the court and jury not hear criminal cases? Even if the court does have a camera system in operation, there must be more than one for recording the legal trial at the same time. In case of any one of the cameras is broken down, the remaining cameras can still function. The legal trial can go on, the broadcasting can go on, and neither are stopped by reason of mechanical error.

If the court finally decides that anyone may attend, perhaps the court might warn the jurors before a criminal trial:

  • Anyone appearing in court, except witnesses, judges, lawyers, prosecutors, defendants and necessarily parties, are all irrelevant;
  • In order to have a fair jury trial for the defendant, the jurors are prohibited to communicate, in any form, to other parties; and
  • Holding conservations and taking photos etc. are all prohibited.

Are these warnings effective and sufficient? Can they be used to ensure a fair legal trial? After warnings are given, and if the jurors still contradict them, should the judge find the jurors to be in contempt of court? Should the legal trial go on or stop? These are questions that we need to further and carefully consider before implementation. 

Jurisdictions: 

Associate Professor in Macao Polytechnic Institute