New handbook for Hong Kong judges includes guides for using social media, dealing with ‘unruly behaviour’ in court

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The Hong Kong Judiciary has issued an update version of its Guide to Judicial Ethics on Monday, 18 years after the manual was first presented in 2004. The new handbook includes behavioral guidelines for judges and bailiffs on topics such as the use of social media.

“Judges’ use of social media in their private activities is a matter of personal choice and is not wrong. On the contrary, lack of basic social media knowledge might suggest that a judge is out of touch with the modern world,” the 2022 guide said.

Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. Photo: GovHK.

But the judiciary has advised judges “to be aware of the inherent risks of using social media and … to proceed with caution” because posts on social media can be quickly seen by the masses and can be easily researched and disseminated.

According to a Press release Announcing the update, the Judiciary said the inclusion of a guideline on the use of social media was necessary to “take into account the impact of advancements in information technology” in the everyday life.

Judges have been advised to be wary of ‘befriending’, ‘liking’ or ‘following’ any person, group or entity to avoid any association that could undermine their impartiality. They were also suggested to consult the judiciary in case of online abuse or doxxing.

Social media app icons on an iPhone. Photo: Brett Jordan, via Unsplash.

Judges have also been given additional duties to govern behavior in court, according to the new guide.

“Judges have the responsibility to regulate court proceedings and to manage any unruly behavior in the courtroom or premises that may interfere with the administration of justice, bearing in mind the fundamental principle of good administration of justice, and others
relevant considerations, including the seriousness of the behavior and the proportionality of the measures to be taken to deal with such behavior,” reads an additional paragraph that was added in the 2022 version.

Even before the new guide was published, city judges became stricter when regulating the conduct of people attending public hearings, especially in cases related to the post-2019 protests.

Two spectators have been charged with “uttering seditious remarks” for disrupting a court proceeding last month. They are said to have cheered after pro-democracy activist Chow Hang-tung gave a speech when she was sentenced for the unauthorized Tiananmen vigil last year.

Some judges warned supporters not to wave at the defendants, saying they would be filmed if they did.

Judge Kwok Wai-kin. File photo: provided.

Another addition to the new manual was a subsection titled “comments on people”. In it, judges were to avoid “unnecessary criticism” in oral remarks or in written judgments, in the exercise of their judicial functions.

In 2020, District Judge Kwok Wai-kin prompted comments after he described a man who stabbed three people in front of a pro-democracy bulletin board as “noble.” Kwok also said the attacker was a “victim” of the anti-extradition protests as they affected his livelihood as a tour guide.

Kwok was temporarily banned from handling protest-related business, but was reinstated after just over a year. He was also later appointed as one of the national security judges.

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