Kemal Bokhary

Bokhary's memoirs offer look at the man who held the gavel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 2:17pm


by Kemal Bokhary

Sweet & Maxwell

Cliff Buddle

It's sometimes easy to forget that judges are human beings. Each appears much like another under their wig and gown. They seldom, if ever, give media interviews or express their views in public, and we usually hear from them only when they deliver their court judgments.

So when a prominent judge publishes his memoirs after more than 40 years in the legal profession - 24 of them on the Hong Kong bench - we have a rare opportunity to enter the closeted judicial world and learn a little more about the man behind the rulings.

Kemal Bokhary - Kemy to his friends - is one of the city's best-known judges. He recently retired after 15 years as a permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, deciding many of the most important cases since the handover. During that time, he gained a reputation as the city's most liberal judge. He was famous for his dissenting judgments - the opposite view to that of the majority of judges hearing the case - often in cases involving human rights.

Bokhary's recent retirement was controversial. This was one occasion when the judge felt able to speak publicly, expressing the belief that his liberal judgments were the reason his contract was not extended when he reached the normal retirement age of 65. He also warned that storm clouds of unprecedented ferocity were gathering over the rule of law in Hong Kong, an apparent reference to moves to have Beijing reinterpret a case already decided by the court. Since then, however, he has been appointed a non-permanent judge of the top court and was back for the recent landmark ruling on the legal status of transsexuals.

We might, then, expect (or even hope) that his book will take the form of a piercing assessment of Hong Kong's legal system, exposing its failings and issuing dire warnings. But that is not what we find.

Bokhary certainly deals with controversial matters, such as his reaction to the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, his decision not to attend the National Day flag-raising ceremony and, in the longest passage, his dissenting judgments in famous constitutional cases. The revelation by WikiLeaks that he and other top judges considered resigning over the reinterpretation by Beijing of their 1999 judgment on the right of abode is covered.

But this is not a law book or a conventional autobiography. It is, literally, what the title suggests: a series of recollections - 249 of them. They are described by Bokhary as "tiny dabs of paint on the broad canvas of Hong Kong's story".

They tell the judge's life story, too. Topics include his ancestry - he was born in Hong Kong where his father, an army officer, had arrived after the second world war with the British forces - his life as a law student, many years as a barrister and his career as a judge.

But these "recollections" are not in chronological order, and they range from a single paragraph in length to 30 pages. Many of them are brief anecdotes about Bokhary's life as a barrister.

These are the sorts of stories you might expect to hear judges recounting over a glass of wine at their favourite club. They plunge us into a world of colourful real-life characters which would not be out of place in John Mortimer's much-loved Rumpole of the Bailey books.

A barrister is bound, gagged and robbed in a washroom at Prince's Building; an ambulance man faints in the witness box while telling the jury of the horror he witnessed at a murder scene; veteran pro-democracy politician and barrister Martin Lee appears in court - to represent a leopard. They are told with a sense of humour.

My favourite is the account of a feud in the 1960s between the then chief justice and a magistrate who had accused him of interfering in judicial independence. Disciplinary proceedings were brought against the magistrate, who threatened to sue the top judge for defamation. The disciplinary action was withdrawn only after it was learnt the magistrate had secretly tape-recorded his exchanges with the CJ.

The tone of the book is warm and generous, and it serves in part to pay tribute to all those who have helped and inspired Bokhary. But it also conveys a serious message. This collection of stories paints an intimate picture of the legal system in Hong Kong as it has developed over the past four decades. The reader will feel as though they know this judge much better by the end of it. What comes through are his compassion, humility and enduring belief in the law as a force for good.

There are certain "minimum entitlements" in life, he writes, "including civil liberties, self-expression, public participation, respect for otherness and at least a tolerable standard of living".

Bokhary describes himself at the outset as a very ordinary man. But his contribution to law in Hong Kong has been anything but. The judge's cautious optimism about the city's future is more likely to be realised if the values he espouses in his Recollections continue to be respected and applied.