New chief justice must rise to the challenge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's legal system depends on having an independent judiciary delivering court judgments fairly, fearlessly and in accordance with established legal principles. This has been one of the core components of our city's success.

The first change of chief justice since the 1997 handover is, therefore, a matter of great importance. Indeed, Andrew Li Kwok-nang's decision last year to retire early - he is expected to step down in September - was greeted with widespread consternation.

These concerns should be eased by the selection last week of Mr Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li as his successor. The choice is unsurprising and uncontroversial - and that is good news when selecting a new chief justice. If anyone has been groomed for the post, it is Ma. He enjoyed a stellar reputation as a senior counsel before joining the judiciary in 2001. Ma was swiftly promoted to chief judge of the High Court, a position he has held for seven years. It is a natural step for him to become the new chief justice. That said, the scale of the challenges facing Ma should not be underestimated.

Li's will be a hard act to follow. Before the handover, there was much wringing of hands about the future of the legal system under the new 'one country, two systems' arrangements. It was uncharted constitutional territory. The crisis which blew up in 1999 over the top court's ruling in favour of mainland-born migrants claiming the right of abode highlighted the dangers. The overruling of the court's decision by Beijing, at the Hong Kong government's request, sparked fresh anxieties. It is to Li's credit that a decade on, public confidence in the judiciary and the rule of law remains high. While the potential for problems to arise in sensitive cases involving interpretation of the Basic Law remains, the legal system is generally in good health. Judges have shown a willingness to defend rights and uphold common law principles. Ma has a heavy responsibility to ensure this continues.

He will preside over the Court of Final Appeal. Established as part of the arrangements for the handover, the court has developed a sound reputation for principled judgments of high quality. Ma must build on those foundations. The new chief justice will be helped by the selection last week of three new non-permanent judges for the top court who will be drafted in for selected cases. Those three judges, Mr Justice Frank Stock, Mr Justice Michael Hartmann and Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching are experienced and well regarded.

They have different areas of expertise and will, no doubt, be a valuable addition to the top court. However, the decision to allow them to continue sitting in the Court of Appeal is controversial. It has given rise to valid concerns that the step may alter the special character the Court of Final Appeal enjoys as being detached from the lower courts. The top court usually considers challenges to Court of Appeal judgments. Now we will have three judges who sit in both courts. It is an arrangement which must be handled very carefully.

Ma will also oversee a succession plan for the judiciary, with many of the more experienced judges reaching retirement age. He must ensure that the quality of our judges is maintained. This will mean persuading top lawyers to join the judiciary, as well as making the right choices about who to move up through the ranks. The rule of law is key to Hong Kong's future. We need an independent judiciary to uphold rights and to ensure that our city maintains its competitiveness by providing a level playing field for businesses. The choice of Ma is a sensible one. Now he must rise to the challenge.