Independence of judiciary is vital
In one of his last speeches before his retirement as chief justice, Andrew Li Kwok-nang emphasised the importance of the independence of the judiciary, and the separation of powers between the courts, the executive and the legislature. It was a reminder that these principles lie at the heart of the success of our city's separate system. Therefore, there is a continuing need for vigilance to ensure that they are not eroded. In this respect it is good to see senior figures in the legal system take up this theme at the opening ceremony of the new legal year. But it is a matter of concern that, as with Li, they were prompted by recent controversies over judicial reviews in which administrative and legal decisions were challenged in the courts.
Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung urged the public not to put pressure on courts hearing cases of social importance, so they could rule on them in accordance with the evidence and the law without improper influences or pressure. Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said the courts would only consider the argument of a case and would not be swayed by political issues.
A case in point was the controversial hearings last year on domestic helpers' right of abode, when Wong appealed to the public to refrain from comment that might prejudice or affect the court's deliberations. There is a balance to be struck here between freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary, both enshrined in the Basic Law. Public comment on social, political or economic issues contributes to the discussion of good governance. But the courts are not the forum for debating or resolving them. As Ma and Wong said, they are places where judges decide cases in accordance with the evidence and the law and would not be swayed by political issues.
The increasing number of judicial reviews on social issues should prompt reflection. So long as Hong Kong does not have elected government or a fully democratic legislature, they are likely to remain a popular avenue of redress. This serves to underline the paramount importance of the independence of the judiciary.