Hong Kong's DPP defends unqualified court prosecutors

Court prosecutors in Hong Kong need not be replaced by legally qualified lawyers, according to the city’s top prosecutor, Kevin Zervos.

In response to calls for the 115 ‘lay prosecutors’ to be replaced by trained solicitors or barristers, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) said such a move would be a “mistake”, and that these individuals were the “unsung heroes” of his division.

“There has been a call for their replacement by legally qualified lawyers but I think this would be a mistake,” Zervos wrote in the annual review of Hong Kong’s prosecution work; the ‘Prosecutions Hong Kong 2012′ report, released this week.

“Most of them have been doing it for many years. They are extremely knowledgeable and dedicated to their work. To my mind they are an important and essential part of our criminal justice system.

“They do a lot, and have to put up with a lot. We are greatly indebted to the work they do and they are the unsung heroes of the Prosecutions Division.”

He was referring to those individuals who present around 180,000 cases of low level crime every year at Hong Kong’s seven Magistrates’ Courts on behalf of the government, most of whom have law degrees or tertiary qualifications but are not qualified lawyers.

Hong Kong’s prosecutions division is the largest  in the Department of Justice (DoJ), with approximately 125 public prosecutors or qualified lawyers and about 115 lay or court prosecutors.

Low level crime was previously presented to the court by law enforcement officers such as police or public health inspectors, but responsibility was handed over to the legal department in the 1970s.

Given the high number of cases, the DoJ permits non-qualified lawyers to handle minor cases such as littering or petty theft.

Zervos acknowledged however, that the work of the Magistrates Court was getting more demanding and complicated, and that the issue did need to be addressed.

“It is worth considering placing a level of government counsel within each Magistrates’ Court to work together with court prosecutors,” he added.

“[This would] enhance the efficiency and professionalism of prosecutions.”

Other legal professionals agree with Zervos that is not necessary to change the criteria for becoming a court prosecutor.

Anthony Neoh, a senior member of the Hong Kong Bar, said difficult cases in the Magistrates’ Courts were easily passed on to more qualified lawyers as and when necessary.

“I would agree with Zervos, I have seen some of these guys in action and they’re pretty good.

“Some cases have become complex but they can always brief out those cases to barristers and solicitors. You wouldn’t want or need a qualified lawyer to handle a simple case of jaywalking for example.

“It is easy to draw the line – you have the prosecutions department with qualified lawyers screening the cases.”

Another concern raised by the DPP in the report was the lack of resources within the judiciary.

In his executive summary, Zervos said Court of Appeal judges were struggling to manage a large workload, which was having a negative impact on the outcome of cases.

Currently there are just 12 judges in total; with half handling criminal cases and the other half handling civil cases.

“[There are regretful] occasions when appellate judges, due to an inordinate workload, do not have time to read the papers or the case authorities when oral argument is presented by the parties,” he wrote.

“The workload has also caused an inordinate delay in the delivery of decisions. This is not conducive to effective justice and needs to be addressed.”

Neoh agreed, citing the need for more judges to handle increasing numbers of cases.

“The caseload of the Court of Appeal is very high,” he said. “The judiciary ought to be given more money by the legislature to appoint more judges.

“The system does not afford enough resources to the judiciary. Without a doubt there should be more judges bearing in mind the caseload now and in the foreseeable future.”

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