1. Introduction to the criminal courts in Hong Kong
There are seven Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong and the Magistrates hear a wide range of summary and indictable offences. The maximum sentence a Magistrate can impose generally is two years imprisonment for a single offence, and three years imprisonment where there are two or more indictable offences being dealt with at the same time. The Magistrate may also in general impose a maximum fine of $100,000. However, some Ordinances give Magistrates a greater power to sentence up to three years imprisonment and a fine of $5,000,000. Magistrates hear cases without a jury.
Minor offences such as hawking, traffic contraventions and littering are heard in the Magistrates' Courts by Special Magistrates. In theory, Special Magistrates can impose a sentence of imprisonment up to 6 months for one offence or up to 12 months for more than one offence (see section 91 and section 57 of the Magistrates Ordinance, Cap. 227). However, in practice Special Magistrates will not be trying any offence which will likely result in imprisonment and so they will not impose any prison sentence. The maximum fine that Special Magistrates can impose is up to $50,000.
The Magistrates' Courts also deal with certain preliminary procedures before the more serious indictable offences are transferred to the District Court or the Court of First Instance of the High Court. The procedure to be conducted by the Magistrate before transferring a case to the Court of First Instance is called the "Committal proceeding". This is basically a screening test to make sure that cases will only be "committed" for a trial with jury in the Court of First Instance if the prosecution can provide enough evidence before the Magistrate to establish a prima facie case against the accused person.
The Juvenile Court is located in the Magistrates' Court and hears charges against young people between the age of 10 and 15 (unless it is a case of murder or manslaughter).
The District Court deals with indictable offences and may hear all serious criminal cases except manslaughter, murder and rape. The maximum term of imprisonment a District Court judge can impose is seven years. District Court judges also hear cases without a jury.
Court of First Instance of the High Court
The Court of First Instance deals with indictable offences . There is no general limit as to the length of imprisonment that the Court of First Instance may impose, so that it can impose the maximum penalty that is set out in the legislation creating the offence. Judges of the Court of First Instance hear criminal cases together with a jury. They also hear Magistrate Appeals, where a judge will sit alone and determine appeals from decisions of the Magistrates' Courts.
Court of Appeal of the High Court
The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the District Court and the Court of First Instance. The Court of Appeal generally consists of three judges sitting together to hear a case.
Court of Final Appeal
The Court of Final Appeal is the highest appellate court in Hong Kong , and hears appeals from the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. Leave (i.e. permission) to appeal must first be obtained from the three-member Appellate Committee of the Court of Final Appeal. The Court of Final Appeal consists of five judges sitting together to hear a case.
For more information on the courts of Hong Kong , you can visit the Judiciary webpage.