Hong Kong to build mega-courtroom for cases with many defendants

A "courtroom shortage" and the need to ensure a "fair trial and due process" were cited as reasons for the plan. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong is planning to set up a "mega-courtroom" to handle cases involving multiple defendants after thousands of arrests since mass protests in 2019 strained the Asian financial hub's courts.

The city's leader Carrie Lam cited both a "courtroom shortage" and the need to ensure a "fair trial and due process", when announcing the plans in the final annual policy address of her current term on Wednesday (Oct 6).

"I have asked relevant departments to fully assist the judiciary in tackling the problem of courtroom shortage," said Lam.

Hong Kong arrested more than 10,000 people during the mass anti-government protests of 2019.

Police have subsequently used a national security law imposed on the city by China last year to arrest 155 people - including some of the city's most prominent democracy activists.

For decades, Hong Kong's respected legal system underpinned its position as Asia's top financial centre, and made it a trusted neutral jurisdiction for international arbitration involving major firms.

The security law's provisions for the city's leader to handpick judges for sensitive cases and Beijing to move trials to the mainland - a power it has not yet exercised - have raised questions about the independence of the former British colony's courts.

Officials have repeatedly stressed the independence of the courts, with Lam saying in her address that "judges look only at the letter and the spirit of the law without any interference".

Yet the legal and judicial systems have come in for strong criticism from foreign experts. Earlier this year, nearly 50 opposition lawmakers and activists, charged under the security law after organising a political primary, were forced to spend four days in court for lengthy bail hearings that stretched until as late as 3am, with some defendants seeking hospital care.

One prominent expert on Chinese law said those bail hearings made a "farce of procedural fairness".

Lam said the new "mega-courtroom and supporting facilities" would be created at the city's Wanchai Tower, which already houses a District Court. The city will also reopen the decommissioned Tsuen Wan Law Courts Building.

The new mega-courtroom will "handle cases involving a large number of defendants" ahead of the commissioning of a new District Court in 2027.

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