16 July 2019
There is good reason for zero-tolerance to any act that constitutes contempt of court. Photo: Bloomberg
There is good reason for zero-tolerance to any act that constitutes contempt of court. Photo: Bloomberg

The lesson and message of Tang’s conviction

Tang Lin-ling, the 35-year-old mainland woman who had been caught taking photos with her smartphone in a Hong Kong courtroom while observing a trial, was on Monday convicted of criminal contempt of court and sentenced to seven-day imprisonment.

Moreover, she was ordered by the judge to pay the prosecution a punishing HK$197,260 in legal costs.

To some people, taking a few snapshots with a cellphone in a courtroom might sound minor and insignificant. However, in our opinion, it was definitely a big mistake.

By unprecedentedly convicting a photo taker of contempt of court, we believe the ruling has sent an important and unmistakable message to society: contempt of court will be dealt with seriously and won’t be tolerated.

As High Court Judge Andrew Chan Hing-wai said in his ruling, as there was no previous case that could be used as reference or any guideline ruling, sentencing must be deterrent enough.

Chan noted that the recent photo-taking incident has become a concern for the High Court, especially in relation to jury members in criminal trials. If a jury member is caught on camera, he or she may become worried.

In other words, the original intent for banning photography in a courtroom is to protect both jury members and witnesses against any external interference so as to guarantee fair trial and prevent perverting the course of justice.

Given this, we totally agree with judge Chan that Tang must be given deterrent punishment. What is more significant about this matter is this: letting the public understand why it is so important for the court not to be held in “contempt”.

The reason why there must be zero-tolerance to any act of contempt of court is simple: if we ever allow any open season on our judiciary, then it is likely to lose its authority in the public mind.

If that happens, members of the public might no longer take court decisions seriously. How can we possibly uphold our rule of law, something that every citizen of Hong Kong treasures, if nobody respects the rulings of the court anymore?

True, there are possibilities that courts might make wrong decisions. But luckily, there is a very well-established mechanism in Hong Kong for people who have been found guilty by the court to appeal against a ruling.

As a matter of fact, over the years there has been no shortage of examples in which the decisions of the court of first instance were overturned by higher courts and the decisions of the appellate court were also overturned.

We would like to reiterate here that the rule of law constitutes the last line of defense of Hong Kong’s society. Contempt of court is akin to tearing down our own city walls.

As such, the conviction of Tang is not only a lesson for her, but also a valuable message for every citizen in Hong Kong as well.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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