Interpretations of an uncommon case

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 October, 1999, 12:00am

One could only wonder what the people at the centre of the case made of it all.

Even the most erudite layman may sometimes feel a bit led astray when trying to follow the intricacies of legal arguments in the courts. But here we had mainlanders, whose knowledge of the common law must be limited at best, having their fates argued about by men in formal black court suits wearing wigs and talking about such things as accrued rights, the plenitude of power, legal delineation and the vesting of judicial power.

They sat silently, the 17 respondents, in a room at the back of the chamber. Other mainlanders collected yellow stickers from court officials and occupied plastic chairs in a side room, watching proceedings on television.

Speaking on their behalf, Denis Chang SC kicked off the hearing with a detailed exchange with the Chief Justice about the discretionary powers of the Director of Immigration.

Using his hands like a conductor moving through his music, Mr Chang went on to read from a number of learned papers to develop his argument about the powers of the National People's Congress and the Court of Final Appeal to interpret and adjudicate on the Basic Law. As Mr Chang dwelt on significant passages, Joseph Fok SC of the government team highlighted them on his copies with a green marker pen.

It was all very lawyerlike, and terribly polite. At times, the hum of the air conditioning was the loudest sound beneath the dome of the white, cream and wooden neo-classical chamber. Twice, a mobile telephone sounded somewhere in the distance, but was swiftly silenced.

When Geoffrey Ma SC for the Director of Immigration asked the Chief Justice to spell out a question, he apologised for being a little 'dim or slow'. At one point, Mr Chang spoke of applicants for the right of abode going 'cap in hand' to the authorities. The judges did not care for the expression. 'Let's forget the psychological atmosphere,' the Chief Justice advised.

One of the judges went as far as to admit that he had been thinking of other things when he asked Mr Chang to repeat three arguments he had put forward about the NPC and the interpretation of the Basic Law.

When the lunch break came, the mainlanders walked down the red carpeted stairs to the sunshine outside the building put up as the French Mission Etrangere in 1917. Those who had not been able to get a place inside gathered round to hear what had happened.

A man embarked on an account of the events. Nearby, others pointed at a newspaper story about the case. Then it was time to climb the stairs again and watch how this thing called the common law works.