Hong Kong's top judges are best defence of independent judiciary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:49am

A robust defence of the judiciary and its independence by two top judges is a good antidote to recent warnings about threats to its integrity and autonomy.

Speaking at Chinese University on Friday, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li described a "fearless judiciary", whose job is to reach well-reasoned and legally sound judgments regardless of popularity or whether they accord with the government's wishes.

Earlier, writing in the Hong Kong Lawyer magazine, Michael Hartmann, a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, said the judiciary remained a "vigorous, independent, well-respected institution", despite what "cynics" may say about it. Our judges, he wrote, have "a fierce sense of independence" and many had formidable "intellectual prowess... who would grace any court in the world".

The two justices are exactly right. Our judges are the ultimate defenders of an independent judiciary, not some politically motivated lawmakers and barristers who exploit every opportunity to portray the courts as some kind of damsel in distress in need of rescue from the government bent on exercising Beijing's will.

It's no accident that, as two of the five judges presiding over the domestic helpers' right-of-abode challenge, they felt called on to make a defence now, though neither referred to the case.

A judgment on the case is expected tomorrow, including whether to entertain a request by the government to ask the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to clarify its 1999 interpretation of Article 24 on right-of-abode conditions in the Basic Law.

Some critics have gone out of their way to misrepresent the government's request, a litigant in the case, as a threat to judicial independence. The request alone does not challenge the court's independence as the top judges have both the competence and power to reject or accept it.

It would amount to a dangerous challenge if the government loses the case tomorrow and proceeds to seek an NPC interpretation on its own. But we are far from that at the moment. In any case, the expected avalanche of public criticism and opposition should deter this government, already unpopular, from pursuing such a course of action.

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, Hong Kong should respect the top court's final judgment.