Lawmakers endorse Geoffrey Ma as top judge

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 June, 2010, 12:00am

The chief judge of the High Court, Mr Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, received formal endorsement from the Legislative Council yesterday to succeed Mr Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang as chief justice, amid increasing concern that the independence of the judiciary is under pressure.

Lawmakers voted unanimously to endorse Ma to take up his new role from September, but their speeches all focused on the importance - and vulnerability - of Hong Kong's judicial independence.

With Legco's formal endorsement, it only remains for the appointment to be reported to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, for the record.

The appointment comes amid rising civil disobedience, a number of judicial review applications challenging executive decisions, and a growing perception that the law is being used as a tool of oppression - most recently fuelled by the confiscation of the Goddess of Democracy statues.

'Under these circumstances, the judiciary is often regarded as the last fortress of a free society,' Emily Lau Wai-hing, vice-chairwoman of the Democratic Party, said. 'Any erosion of judicial independence is a matter of grave concern and I am confident Mr Ma is aware of the people's aspirations, as well as apprehension.'

Li made a surprise announcement in September that he intended to take early retirement. He stressed his retirement was to facilitate 'orderly succession planning', but many observers and lawmakers fear possible interference from Beijing.

A visit in July 2008 by Vice-President Xi Jinping raised further concerns after he emphasised that the three branches of government should give each other mutual support and understanding.

Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said speculation was still swirling as to why Li decided to retire early. 'The public is deeply worried that this signals an era in which judicial independence will gradually yield to the influence and intervention of Beijing ... but I believe the challenges have always been there, openly at times, but unceasingly as an undercurrent.'

Lau said many people were unnerved by Li's decision last year. 'Some people said their confidence in the stability and the independence of the judiciary had been shaken ... I guess we will never know the real reason, but one thing is for sure - Hong Kong cannot afford another surprise resignation,' she said.

Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said that in the current political climate it was even more important that the judiciary maintained its independence.

On Monday the deputy secretary general of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Qiao Xiaoyang , gave his 'personal understanding' of the meaning of universal suffrage in the context of the Basic Law. 'Is the next step another reinterpretation?' Eu said.

After four formal meetings of the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, which is headed by the chief justice, Ma was recommended as chief judge on the basis of being 'a man of high integrity', an 'outstanding lawyer' and with 'proven administrative and leadership qualities'.

Ma is currently on leave, but a spokesman referred to the statement he made after being formally recommended for the role: 'He is fully conscious of the community's high expectations of the judiciary and that, if appointed, he will do his utmost to ensure that the rule of law and judicial independence are maintained and that the rights and freedoms of the individual are safeguarded.'

Appeal judges Mr Justice Frank Stock, Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching and Mr Justice Michael Hartmann also received formal endorsement as non-permanent judges of the Court of Final Appeal yesterday.