A tireless champion of judicial integrity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2009, 12:00am

Last week, Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, the most respected public figure in Hong Kong, said that his early retirement would be conducive to the orderly succession of the judiciary, as a number of senior judges would retire in the next few years. While some continue to speculate about whether there was any political motive behind Li's decision, which he strongly denied, I think it is much more important to reflect on the outstanding achievements of this transformational chief justice.

In a joint statement, both the Bar Association and the Law Society praised Li for his contribution to the rule of law in Hong Kong. Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung added that, because of Li's personal inspiration and leadership, the judiciary continued to attract top legal talent.

As a former government official, I can vouch for this. Li has single-handedly persuaded many top local private-practice lawyers to give up their lucrative incomes and join the judiciary for a noble cause. As a result, he has laid a solid foundation for a sustainable and local-based judiciary. At the same time, he has succeeded in retaining and attracting many overseas judges to serve on the bench, drawing the best from other common-law jurisdictions. It is a truly unsurpassed achievement.

Apart from maintaining a high standard of judicial service, Li is acutely aware of the need to sustain public trust in the system. In October 2004, the judiciary issued its Guide to Judicial Conduct, the first of its kind in Hong Kong. The comprehensive, 30-page document covers such areas as the professional and non-judicial activities of judges outside court. In the foreword, the chief justice stressed the importance of judges observing the highest standards of conduct to maintain public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice.

Li has always been alert to any allegation that judges might be politically tainted. In June 2006, following a media report that two part-time judges were members of a political party, he issued a guideline in relation to part-time judges and participation in political activities. Noting that judges, both full-time and part-time, enjoy rights and freedoms as citizens, including the freedom of association, the guideline recognises that certain restrictions on these freedoms are required to ensure that judicial independence and impartiality are maintained and are seen to be maintained.

The greatest challenge or setback in Li's term of office must have been the right of abode case where the decision of the Court of Final Appeal was overturned by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, which exercised its constitutional power to interpret the Basic Law. Despite this, Li never shied away from standing his ground in the face of political pressure.

A recent example relates to the remark by Vice-President Xi Jinping during his visit to Hong Kong in July that there should be mutual understanding and support among the executive, legislature and judiciary. Many speculated that one reason for Xi's comment was Beijing's concern over the impact of some judicial review judgments against the Hong Kong government.

In December 2008, at the international conference titled 'Effective Judicial Review' hosted by the judiciary, Li stated unambiguously in his opening address that the judicial review is a cornerstone of good governance because public powers should be exercised within legal limits and with fairness. It was a clear elucidation of how an independent judiciary protects the rights and freedoms of the ordinary people against abuses of power by the government.

As the first head of the judiciary since the establishment of the special administrative region, Li will be fondly remembered for nurturing a judicial system that has won the praise of the people of Hong Kong as well as the most critical observers outside the SAR.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong