Office of The Ombudsman announces results of direct investigation into operational arrangements for statutory visits under Justices of the Peace Visit Programme
The Ombudsman, Ms Winnie Chiu, today (February 2) announced the completion of the direct investigation into the operational arrangements for statutory visits under the Justices of the Peace Visit Programme (JP Visit Programme), and made 13 recommendations for improvement to the Administration Wing, the Correctional Services Department (CSD), the Immigration Department (ImmD), the Hospital Authority (HA) and the Social Welfare Department (SWD).
The JP Visit Programme is administered by the Administration Wing. JP statutory visits now cover 38 institutions, including correctional institutions of the CSD, detention centres of the ImmD, psychiatric hospitals of the HA, as well as remand homes, places of refuge, probation homes and reformatory schools of the SWD. JPs conduct surprise visits to these institutions on a fortnightly, monthly or quarterly basis. The JP Visit Programme has been in operation for years since the Government's review in 1999.
Investigation by the Office of The Ombudsman revealed that the CSD, the ImmD, the HA and the SWD have prepared their respective checklists highlighting the key areas that JPs may wish to heed when visiting their institutions. In actual operation, however, some key areas on the checklists may be left unassessed by the visiting JPs. In addition, the JP Visit Logbook used by all the departments and organisations is not designed in such a way that the items therein correspond to the key areas on their respective checklists. It does not facilitate JPs' making of comprehensive assessments and records of the institution.
The investigation also found that when JPs arrive at an institution for surprise visit, institutions of some departments and organisations do not notify immediately all the persons in custody, detained or hospitalised (institutionalised persons) of the visit. Institutions of some departments and organisations also do not inform institutionalised persons that they can, in the interest of privacy, request to meet JPs in private. At the same time, mere verbal confirmation by staff of institutions as to whether JPs have seen all institutionalised persons during the visit is not entirely objective or complete. On the other hand, some institutionalised persons may not be in the institution during the JP visit for one reason or another. The existing practice of the CSD and the ImmD of informing them of the JP visit upon their return is one that the HA and the SWD should learn from.
With respect to the complaints, enquiries or requests received by the visiting JPs, as well as their suggestions or comments, the departments and organisations in general can handle them and reply to the JPs in a timely manner. Yet, there is still room for improvement in the handling of complaints lodged with JPs by some departments and organisations.
Furthermore, the Administration Wing published the Annual Report on Justices of the Peace Visits each year at a different time and did not inform the public that the latest Report was available online for viewing. The "Justices of the Peace Zone" (JP Zone) on the JP website accessible only to JPs is of limited function and reference value.
Ms Chiu said, "The JP Visit Programme is a system for monitoring the management of institutions. It also provides a channel outside other established mechanisms for persons in custody, detained or hospitalised to express their views and lodge complaints. Each year JPs conduct almost 500 statutory visits to the institutions concerned. The JP Visit Programme can achieve the above objective only if all the departments and organisations execute the various arrangements for the visits conscientiously and the JPs discharge their statutory functions effectively. Overall, the Office considers the operation of the JP Visit Programme smooth in general and recognises the contribution of JPs in this regard. That said, there is still room for improvement in the operational arrangements for the Programme. The Office hopes that the departments and organisations concerned can continue to review and improve the operational arrangements for the Programme."
The Office has made 13 recommendations for improvement which, among others, include:
- The CSD, the ImmD, the HA and the SWD should, in conjunction with the Administration Wing, review and revise their respective templates of the Logbook to incorporate the key areas on the checklist accordingly; in case any key areas are yet to be mentioned during the briefing or the inspection, institution staff should proactively provide JPs with related information for assessment of those areas, so that they can make comprehensive assessments and records of the institution;
- On the day of visit or within one week afterwards, the CSD, the ImmD, the HA and the SWD should provide visiting JPs with a name list of the persons temporarily away from an institution (including the reasons for their absence if practicable) and attach it to the Logbook, so as to help the JPs assess whether they have seen all institutionalised persons during their visit and check whether any persons have been absent from two consecutive JP visits. The institution should highlight on the name list those who were absent from two consecutive JP visits and provide the reasons for their absence for the respective visits;
- If, upon assessment of the actual circumstances of a case and operation of the institution in question, it is conceivably inappropriate to issue a written reply pursuant to the complainant's request, the CSD, the ImmD, the HA and the SWD should make a record of the request and mention in their written reply to JPs such a request together with the department or organisation's specific reason for not acceding to the request;
- The CSD and the HA should favourably consider using the public address system or other means to notify early all inmates or hospitalised persons at different locations of an institution that JPs are about to start a visit;
- The HA and the SWD should inform institutionalised persons returning to a ward or an institution after temporary absence that JPs have made a visit so as to safeguard their right to know;
- The HA and the SWD should mention in their written replies to JPs what and how investigation findings were related to the complainants, so as to facilitate JPs' understanding of whether the complaint handling process of the institution is fair and proper;
- The HA and the SWD should inform institutionalised persons through appropriate documents that they can ask to meet JPs in private; the HA may specify in the documents whether a private meeting can be arranged depends on the JPs' decision;
- The Administration Wing should devise a timetable for publishing the Annual Report to ensure its publication within a specified period every year; and issue a press release in tandem with the publication to inform the public that the latest Report is available online for viewing; and
- The Administration Wing should consider seeking JPs' views on strengthening digital support for the Programme; for example, whether it is necessary to optimise the JP Zone on the JP website via information technology in order to provide useful information to JPs more conveniently, to collect their views through more diversified channels and to facilitate the exchange and sharing of visiting experience among them.
The full investigation report has been uploaded to the website of the Office of The Ombudsman at www.ombudsman.hk for public information.
Ends/Thursday, February 2, 2023
Issued at HKT 11:00
Issued at HKT 11:00