High Court's Geoffrey Ma tipped as next top judge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am

The Chief Judge of the High Court, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, is expected to be Hong Kong's next chief justice, only the second since the handover.

The Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission is expected to present its choice to succeed Andrew Li Kwok-nang to the chief executive within weeks.

If the chief executive agrees, the appointment will go to the Legislative Council and the process completed by the middle of the year.

The chairwoman of Legco's legal panel, Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, believes the process is 'on course' and that a recommendation will be made next month.

The commission's deliberations are strictly confidential and a spokesman for the judiciary said it had 'nothing to add' to the information already provided to Legco by the administration.

'If it weren't Geoffrey Ma, then I'd be concerned,' lawmaker and former Bar Council chairman Ronny Tong Ka-wah said.

He said the candidate should preferably come from the judiciary since judges were perceived as being politically neutral and relatively isolated from controversy.

Anyone from outside the judiciary could become tainted with political controversy. 'And from within the judiciary, I don't see any better candidate,' Tong said.

Ma, 53, was in private practice in Hong Kong from 1980 and was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1993. He was appointed a judge of the Court of First Instance in 2001 and elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2002.

Some barristers have said they believe Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung would prefer to return to private practice than make a controversial move from a political appointment to chief justice.

The Bar Association and the Law Association have previously said it would be inappropriate for the secretary for justice to be a member of the commission that considers judicial candidates.

Given Wong's relative youth, lawyers do not believe he would risk a controversial move when he could still be a candidate for the top job later, with less controversy.

Since it will be the first time since the handover that Legco will be asked to endorse a new chief justice, lawmakers originally suggested they be allowed to interview the recommended candidate in a Legco hearing.

But fierce opposition from the legal community quashed the idea.

Li has indicated displeasure at the possibility of such an interview process for fear of the appointment being politicised.

'It is essential to judicial independence that the process of judicial appointment never be politicised. In our jurisdiction, it has not been politicised, and I trust that it will never be. This includes the endorsement process in the Legislative Council for the most senior judicial appointments,' the chief justice said in his speech at the ceremonial opening of the legal year last month.

'I am glad to see that the Legislative Council has adopted a procedure for dealing with endorsement which ensures that whilst enabling it to discharge its duty, the process is not politicised.

'I am confident the council will continue to deal with the process of endorsement without politicising it.'

Lawmakers have agreed to restrict their consideration to reviewing information about the candidate supplied by the administration.

The commission comprises Li and Wong, the Court of Final Appeal's Roberto Ribeiro, High Court judge Louis Tong Po-sun, former Bar chairman Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung SC, former Law Society president Michael Lintern-Smith and three laypeople.