Hong Kong courts are expected to resume normal operations earliest on March 23 and embark on an ambitious task of clearing a backlog of cases within a week, after two months of unprecedented closure amid the coronavirus epidemic.

The judiciary on Thursday announced an orderly resumption of court offices and proceedings starting next Monday to handle a growing list of urgent cases until the week starting with March 23, when the adjournment is expected to end “if public health situation permits”.

All hearings until March 23 will be adjourned, apart from fresh remand cases, bail applications, sentencing, urgent appeals, or handing down of judgments and decisions. Court registries will gradually reopen in the weeks to follow.

“The judiciary has been expanding the scope of urgent and essential court businesses, striking a careful balance between public health considerations and the due administration of justice,” a spokesman said.

“The judiciary wishes to stress that at all times, public interest is paramount.”

Both the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Hong Kong Law Society, which represent about 1,400 barristers and 10,000 solicitors respectively, have raised concerns over the growing backlog of cases created by the adjournment since January 29.

Sources said senior magistrates, including Principal Magistrate Peter Law Tak-chuen, met earlier this week to discuss the matter.

A source close to the judiciary said all courts would attempt to clear the backlog of cases within one week when normal operations resumed.

In the first week, the courts will only take up plea hearings or cases where defendants were in custody. This is despite the fact that the courts continued to hear cases where defendants were freshly arrested or bail applications were renewed during the period of adjournment across February.

In the second week, the courts will carry on with previously scheduled hearings.

All trials originally scheduled during the adjournment will be postponed to a date, believed to be after mid-April.

Legal sources have described the plan as “ambitious” as it is unclear if the judicial manpower could match the number of cases.

Defence lawyers are concerned over conflicting schedules that may require them to drop clients.

Some court users have also expressed concerns over the large number of people who would be entering and gathering in courtrooms, registries and hallways once they are all reopened.

It was not immediately clear how many cases the magistrates’ court will have to handle in a week.

In 2019, the magistrates’ courts handled more than 332,000 cases, or 27,700 cases a month on average.

At present, only a limited number of courtrooms and offices are open from Monday to Saturday to handle urgent and essential matters.

But when they are open, scores of police officers pack the magistrates’ registries to apply for warrants, while cases relating to the anti-government protests continue to draw large numbers of supporters.

All users are required to wear masks and cooperate with temperature checks, with some courts providing hand disinfectants. Those not feeling well have been advised to request for permission for absence.

The judiciary also introduced new seating arrangements, reducing the capacity of public galleries and press seats by half by requiring users to sit on alternate rows.

South China Morning Post

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