Suspension of rulings sends wrong message

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 March, 2009, 12:00am

There should be no stauncher follower of Hong Kong's laws enshrining our rights and freedoms than the government. These values go to the heart of our society. They are a key reason for our city's success and vibrancy. Yet in recent times there have been occasions when the authorities have been found by the courts to have breached the law but been allowed to continue with the policy until the problem has been resolved. This is a worrying trend.

There have now been at least three rulings in which the courts have suspended their decisions and given the government time to sort the matter out. The first was with covert surveillance. Authorities had been warned for years that they had been breaching the Basic Law in this regard; the courts agreed. The implementation of the ruling was, however, suspended so that new legislation could be put in place. This could be justified on the grounds that to do otherwise would have benefited criminals and had a severe impact on society.

Last year, a magistrate ruled that the licensing regime for radio stations was unconstitutional. The effect of that ruling was also suspended until it was overturned by a higher court. In the meantime, the legal position was uncertain. It was far from an ideal situation. Yesterday, a court granted the government's application to suspend the impact of a ruling upholding prisoners' voting rights until October, so that a new policy can be put in place. This should not be necessary. The government, having breached the law in the past by denying prisoners the right to vote, should move swiftly to ensure this no longer happens. Giving officials an extra six months to comply with the law sends out the wrong message.

The job of the courts is to interpret and apply the law. Rulings must be respected. They should only be suspended in extreme circumstances, especially when human rights are involved. If the trend of suspending judgments continues, there is a danger officials will ignore doubts about the legality of policies, believing courts will give them time to sort the problem out. Such a mindset must not be allowed to develop, otherwise our cherished rights will be eroded.