Law lord's visit provides lawmakers with a model of co-operation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 3:30am

It is rare for a visiting lawmaker to weigh into contentious local political and legal issues. An exception is Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, a barrister and member of Britain's House of Lords. Many would empathise with his impressions of our legislature, with references to "near paralysis", the "near impossibility" of getting legislative reforms through in an orderly way, and the behaviour of different politicians and political parties. His point was that failure by officials and legislators to make much-needed changes to the law left difficult issues to be resolved by the courts instead, a state of affairs that threw too heavy a burden on the city's judges in upholding human rights.

His remarks follow controversy over former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie's statement that the city's judges failed to understand the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government. She said a Basic Law interpretation from Beijing on the right of abode was the best way to tackle a contentious court decision that has encouraged pregnant mainland women to give birth in Hong Kong.

Lester's call for lawmakers to put aside their differences and work together to ensure the law moves with the times would resonate with many observers. He cited the need for legislation to strike the right balance between free expression and other rights, such as privacy. A veteran law-reform campaigner who was here to deliver a lecture on free speech and privacy, Lester is a prime mover behind efforts to overhaul Britain's notoriously stringent libel laws to better protect freedom of expression. A government bill now before the British Parliament to reform defamation law, which has cross-party support, is an example of lawmakers working together to make much-needed changes to the law. The difficulty of striking a balance between free speech, reputation and privacy is compounded by grey areas in the law that are mirrored here.

Hopefully, lawmakers and officials can develop a greater capacity to work together before they have to deal with an issue important to the city's future - arrangements for popular election of the chief executive 2017, a step on the way to full universal suffrage. Meanwhile, a testament to Lester's impressions of Legco, is that a new old-age allowance for the poor is being held up by a stand-off over a means test. If lawmakers and officials cannot even put differences aside to pass popular social measures, they cannot complain if the public holds the courts in higher esteem than the legislature.