Court 'interference' that prevents abuse of power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 July, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's first chief justice, Andrew Li Kwok-nang, stands as a key figure in the successful implementation of the 'one country, two systems' concept, following China's resumption of sovereignty over the city.

Li was set the unprecedented task of maintaining and developing common law principles in a jurisdiction that arises from Chinese national law adopted by the National People's Congress. The difficulties inherent in this became clear when a constitutional crisis was triggered in 1999 by a judgment of the top court that was later effectively overturned by Beijing. But the fact that the judiciary recovered from that trauma and continues to maintain a high level of public confidence is a testament to Li's achievements over the 13 years during which he has been at the helm.

This is largely due to the role he has played in moulding our courts into stronger guardians of our rights and more of a check on the powers of the government, while our legislature continues to puzzle over its own democratic development. Behind the scenes, he has also implemented measures aimed at improving access to justice.

Perhaps because of his brief experience as a journalist, Li has appreciated the value of a free press. One of the most significant cases on fair comment and free expression in the common law world now comes from our own Court of Final Appeal. That judgment has played a part in ensuring public debate in our city remains vibrant and that the media routinely carries criticism of the Hong Kong and mainland governments as well as the judiciary. This is an aspect of life that is a major factor in our city's competitiveness in the region.

Recently in this newspaper, Hong Kong tycoon Ronnie Chan Chichung opined that the judiciary 'wrongly think they are so almighty that they can rule on everything', and that it was wrong to rule on 'social issues and moral issues such as gay marriage'. Thanks to the freedom of expression enshrined in the Basic Law and guarded by our courts, such comments contribute to the discussion of good governance and political development in the city, despite Chan's mistaken belief the court has ruled on gay marriage.

In fact, Li himself has always been careful to remind the community that courts are only concerned with the 'limits of legality' and reiterated yesterday, as he presided over his last hearing before retirement, that 'the courts are not the appropriate forum for debating or resolving political, social or economic issues, let alone one for the ventilation of campaigns for political ends'. However, that court decisions on the legality of a wide range of issues should have repercussions for our daily lives is not only inevitable but should be welcomed, for only then are individuals protected from abuses of power. The growing willingness of courts to step in and prevent such abuses is certainly not confined to Hong Kong.

Chan's view that Li should retire early because he has somehow led Hong Kong onto the wrong track is a minority one. A recent university survey found Li to have received a rating of 68.1 points, the highest in its history. Li has ensured our courts are prepared to protect minority rights. Rather than depart from his track, as suggested by Chan, the next chief justice would do well to follow it.