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FDHs issued rare notices to act as court jurors

08 October 2020

By Vir B. Lumicao 

Most jury trials are held at the Court of First Instance in the High Court

A number of Filipina domestic helpers have expressed alarm on receiving letters from the Hong Kong Judiciary recently, informing them that they are being added to the list of people who may be called as jurors in court trials or inquests by the Coroner.

In the first week of October alone, at least six Filipina members of Domestic Workers Corner, a Facebook group, received the notice from the High Court Registrar. The letters sparked concern because it is rare for FDHs to get the notification.

However, at least one of DWC’s administrators, Bebs Leonardo, said she received the same letter in August last year, but decided not to respond to it because her employer reportedly told her that FDHs are exempted from jury service.

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The standard letter states: “Whereas it appears that you are a person (a) qualified to serve as a juror under section 4 and (b) not exempt from service as a juror under section 5, you are hereby notified that your name will be added to the list of jurors, unless 14 days after the receipt of this notice, you notify me in writing that you claim exemption from jury service…”

The letter said the recipient can claim exemption if he/she is not qualified for the jury service under section 4 of the Jury Ordinance and that he/she is exempt from service as a juror under section 5.

Otherwise, their names would be placed in the potential list of jurors and they should be ready to comply when summoned to appear in court, where a further elimination process is made to select the seven people who will sit through the trial, and render judgment.

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Those who are exempted from jury service include diplomats, judges and their spouses, lawyers, police officers, journalists, teachers, students and members of the People’s Liberation Army.

The list does not include FDHs, although theoretically, the nature of their job which could entail taking care of infants and elderly people, is a ground that they could use to ask for an exemption.

Another ground that can be used is if the juror is able to satisfy the court or the coroner that he/she has no sufficient knowledge of the language to be used in the trial, which is often English, but may also be Cantonese.

The letter that sparked concern among FDWs

DWC founder Rodelia Pedro Villar says members who received the notice mostly had some qualms.

“Natakot sila kasi they are not aware at hindi alam ano dapat gawin,” Villar said.

(They got scared because they did not know what to do)

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But she said at least one member was happy, claiming she had already been selected as a juror. However, she did not know what she was expected to do in court.

Another notified member was apprehensive, saying she had no criminal record. But she said she was waiting for a feedback from her employer before replying to the registrar.

“I am not aware that we domestic helpers are part of this. I advised those [notified] members that they need to give attention and ask for help on what to do,” Villar said.

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Jury duty, while exciting for some, is avoided by others because a trial could last for weeks, even months. The longest jury trial ever recorded in the High Court was the Carrian civil case, which lasted for a year.

But once called for jury service, a person must show up in court and comply with the order. If a juror does not show up when called or withdraws after appearance without the judge’s permission, he/she shall be guilty of an offense and liable to a $5,000 fine unless a valid reason is given.

The Jury Ordinance also penalizes an employer who terminates, threatens to fire or discriminates against a worker for performing jury service. He shall be guilty of an offense and liable to a $25,000 fine and 3 months imprisonment. 

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The High Court registrar compiles a provisional list of jurors once every two years in or before October, and the jurors will be confirmed in or before the following February.

Each week, the registrar draws at random from the list a number of jurors to sit in a trial by jury, which could be civil or criminal in nature, or an inquest by the Coroner. At the end of the trial the jurors are the ones who render judgment.

In a civil case, they are called upon to decide whether there was merit in the claim, even the amount that should be paid to the claimant. In a criminal case, they will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. In an inquest, they decide the cause and circumstances that led to death.

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“Jurors are not legal experts and so they are given clear directions on points of law by the trial judge. The personal responsibility of each juror is to ensure that justice is done... not merely to the person on trial but also to the whole community,” the Judiciary says.

Under the Jury Ordinance, a Hong Kong resident can serve as a juror if he/she has reached the age of 21 but is not yet 65; of sound mind and has no disabilities such as hearing or visual impairments. He/she should be of good character and has sufficient knowledge of the language (Chinese or English) of the court proceedings.

The selection process starts with the Commissioner of Registration compiling the personal data of a person who appears to be qualified and sends these to the High Court registrar, who notifies the person that his name is about to be added to the jurors list.

A summons requesting the presence of the juror in the High Court or the Coroner’s Court will be sent by registered post at least 21 days before a trial.

People who sit in a jury trial are paid an allowance by the High Court for each day of their appearance.

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