Independence is key to justice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 2:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 2:53am

For the fifth consecutive year, our most senior legal figures have used the ceremonial opening of the legal year to emphasise the importance of an independent judiciary and the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

It is because of adherence to these principles that the judiciary enjoys wide public confidence and respect among its international peers.

Yet this year Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung were quite forthright in their remarks. This followed criticism perceived as undermining pillars of our core value of the rule of law.

Yuen hit back at "abusive attacks" on judges by people who disagreed with their decisions. Ma quoted the Basic Law on separation of powers to repudiate the view attributed to some Beijing officials and loyalists that the three branches of government should "co-operate".

In 2010, Ma's predecessor Andrew Li Kwok-nang said the role of the city's independent judiciary needed to be clearly explained for everyone's understanding. In 2012 Yuen's predecessor, Wong Yan-lung, and Ma took up the independence theme.

As with Li, they were prompted by controversies over judicial reviews in which administrative and legal decisions were challenged in the courts. Last year, Yuen and Ma warned against political pressure on the courts following a series of legal and political controversies.

This year their speeches followed last month's contentious ruling by the top court that new immigrants no longer had to wait seven years for entitlement to welfare benefits.

Ma commented that certain public law cases tested the demarcation lines of separation of powers, but the constitutional line was clear - that the courts dealt only with legal issues. Public confidence in the judiciary's integrity rested on independence and proper, transparent application of the law in letter and spirit.

The importance of judicial independence does bear repeating, year after year. Hong Kong's success owes much to firm adherence to the rule of law, which protects our freedom, provides a level playing field for business and guards against abuse of power by government. There is no place for populism or political pressure if the judicial independence fundamental to the rule of law is not only upheld, but seen to be.