The authorities must respect the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 June, 2004, 12:00am

The rule of law is one of Hong Kong's greatest assets. It creates a level playing field, makes for a fairer society and brings order to our lives. .

But if the rule of law is to thrive, it must be respected and observed - especially by those responsible for implementing the law. We rely on them to set an example.

Last week's attempt by immigration officials to remove a mother and daughter from Hong Kong before they had a chance to argue their case in court is therefore a matter of regret.

One of the basic principles of the rule of law is that anyone with a legal action pending should be given a fair opportunity to pursue it. This is of particular importance when the hearing concerns a mother who is seeking to establish that her three-year-old daughter has the right of abode.

In the case in question , the former domestic helper from the Philippines is due to appear in court in August. This is to enable a judge to decide whether she should be granted legal aid.

But for swift action taken by lawyers, the mother and daughter would now be back in the Philippines, unable to go ahead with the hearing. They had been put on a plane which was about to take off when a judge hurriedly ordered that the removal must not go ahead.

The mother claims she and her daughter were roughly manhandled. This must be thoroughly investigated.

But whatever the circumstances of the attempted removal, it is clear that the Immigration Department knew that a court case was pending. It is not good enough for officials merely to point out that the law does not prevent it from removing people ahead of their day in court. What matters is that such a step is unfair, and contrary to the spirit of the rule of law. This is why courts have consistently sought to prevent such moves - and why judges often express their displeasure when faced with such a situation.

Immigration officers have a tough job, particularly at a time of heightened concern about international terrorism and other forms of organised crime. They cannot afford to adopt too flexible an approach to the rules.

But we are not dealing with such a situation here. And there is no rule which says they must remove people before they have a chance to appear in court.

This is not the first time such an incident has occurred. Emergency court hearings have been needed to prevent removals in similar circumstances in the past. In 1999, two mainland right-of-abode seekers were sent back across the border minutes before a judge ordered that they must be allowed to stay. At the time, a senior Security Bureau official rightly described the incident as unfortunate and unsatisfactory.

Law enforcement officers have a duty to ensure that the rule of law is adhered to. Any failure to do so, as in this case, devalues one of our city's main strengths.