Return of highest court to Legco building symbolically right, says top barrister

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 April, 2009, 12:00am

In 2012, the Legislative Council Building in Central will hear the wranglings of the courtroom once again when the Court of Final Appeal moves in.

The Bar's most senior barrister, Sir John Swaine, recalls the days when the building held the Supreme Court. Sir John, who was called to the Bar in 1960, remembers the day he first stepped into the Supreme Court chamber as a barrister that year.

'I represented a man charged with murder,' he said. 'The building and the court are imposing. It frightened the person who was accused of murder. But luckily, he was acquitted.'

Sir John, who was born in Shanghai, will celebrate his 77th birthday on Wednesday. It was like 'climbing the ladder' he said of his rise from junior barrister. But that feeling did not last long, 'After a while, it is quite routine,' he said.

The court will occupy the building once the legislature moves to Tamar in Admiralty.

Mining his memories, Sir John discussed the annual ceremony that marks the beginning of the legal year, a ritual which originated in England.

'Now, the ceremonial opening of the legal year is done at City Hall and Convention Plaza, but before it was done outside (the former Supreme Court) building,' Sir John said.

'Judges and barristers congregated outside, under the roof of the building, and troops marched along Chater Road. People came to watch, it was quite colourful. Now, judges are guarded by police, back then it was the British Army.'

Before the Supreme Court building became the Legislative Council in 1985, the building was closed for seven years because of safety problems caused by construction work for the Mass Transit Railway system.

But the connection between Sir John and the building was not interrupted after the closure of the Supreme Court - he stepped into the chamber as an appointed member of the Legislative Council.

From 1991, Sir John was deputy president of Legco while David Wilson was the governor. In 1993, he became the first non-government official to take up the presidency of the assembly after Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, decided to step down from the post.

And Sir John noticed the changes made to the building.

'There was quite a lot of renovation,' he said. 'The building was restored to its proper condition when it became the headquarters of Legco. The main Legco chamber was the library of the Supreme Court. Before that the library was actually the number one courtroom,' he recalled.

The most senior barrister in town is happy that the Court of Final Appeal, which will move into the Legco building after the legislature moves to Tamar in Admiralty, will be located in the heart of Central. He believes the move is symbolically and practically significant.

'No one knew that we needed to have the Court of Final Appeal at that time. Now, it [the former French Mission Building on Battery Path which houses the Court of Final Appeal] is too small. It does not suit as the Court of Final Appeal. It is just a building on a slope,' he said.

Cheng Huan, a senior counsel who was called to the Hong Kong Bar in 1976, shares Sir John's opinion.

'It [the Legco building] is one of the grandest buildings in Hong Kong,' he said. 'It is important to have the Court of Final Appeal at the centre of the centre. I could still remember my first High Court case in that building.'

Mr Cheng remembers barristers at that time complaining about the rooftop canteen. 'It was not spacious enough. There was not much seating. Once you stepped in, you were already inside the court.'

Another senior counsel, Edward Chan King-sang, a former Bar Association chairman, remembers most barristers' chambers were in the Prince's Building. 'Most barristers just walked across the square and then straight to the High Court,' said Mr Chan who was called to the Bar in 1975.