Lord Lester calls on lawmakers to speed up reforms to aid justice
Visiting QC says Hong Kong's legal system is hampered by painfully slow changes in laws
Hong Kong's judges have been left to carry too heavy a burden in upholding human rights because of a state of "near-paralysis" in the city's legislature, a prominent British barrister and lawmaker warned.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, who delivered a lecture at the University of Hong Kong last night, told the South China Morning Post a failure by officials and legislators to make much-needed changes to the law left difficult issues to be resolved by the courts instead.
"The Hong Kong judiciary is stronger now than it was in colonial times," Lester said.
"One of the problems is that owing to the near paralysis of the law-making role here and the behaviour of different politicians and political parties, and the near impossibility of getting legislative reforms through in an orderly way, a great deal of responsibility is placed on the judiciary."
Lester, 74, a veteran campaigner for law reform in Britain, said there was a need for legislators to put aside their differences and work together to make the improvements needed to ensure the law moves with the times.
He urged the government to repeal or amend "antique colonial laws" that threatened free speech, such as criminal libel, blasphemous libel and scandalising the judiciary. Legislation was also needed to strike the right balance between free expression and other rights, such as privacy.
Lester's comments follow controversy over former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie's statement that the city's judges fail to understand the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government, and had made mistakes in their judgments. 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 expectant mainland women to give birth in Hong Kong.
Attacks on judges were not unique to Hong Kong, Lester said. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to defy a European Court of Human Rights ruling requiring his government to remove a blanket ban on the right of prisoners to vote.
"These are simply examples of the political class up against judgments it finds embarrassing, inconvenient or unpopular going on the attack instead of understanding that the rule of law depends upon their respecting the independence of the judgments of the judiciary."
Judges should not be immune from criticism, he said, but "when a senior politician or civil servant attacks the judiciary in a more fundamental way I think that undermines the rule of law. I have no idea whether the right of abode case was rightly or wrongly decided, but there is something more important than that which is the integrity of the system itself.
"Everywhere you have to fight for the rule of law and it is a fight that goes on all the time, and the pressures the other way are huge.
"I think the PRC rulers are quite intelligent enough to appreciate that if they can respect 'one country, two systems', it is going to be in the interests of the PRC as a whole and it would be highly destructive of the interests of China if that system were to be undermined."
Lester, a Liberal Democrat member of Britain's House of Lords, was invited to Hong Kong by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre and the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong. He delivered a lecture on free speech, privacy and media intrusion at the university yesterday. The South China Morning Post is a media sponsor of the lecture.
The barrister is the prime mover behind efforts to bring about historic changes to Britain's notoriously stringent libel laws. A Defamation Bill, intended to clarify the law and better protect freedom of expression, is currently before Parliament.
Lester said the bill had received cross-party support.