Hong Kong chief justice says criticism by ex-justice minister won't affect judges

Geoffrey Ma says comments by the former justice minister will not affect judges; Bar Association warns against undermining of judicial system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 5:40am

Criticism by former justice minister Elsie Leung Oi-sie of Hong Kong judges will not influence the decisions of courts, according to the city's top judge.

"[Leung] enjoys her freedom of expression. However, her remarks will not affect judges," Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said yesterday in response to questions after a ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year.

It was the first time Ma had commented on Leung's criticism last year of Hong Kong judges' "lack of understanding of the relationship between the HKSAR and the central government", which drew fire from the legal profession.

At yesterday's ceremony, Bar Association chairman Kumar Ramanathan SC warned against "political demagoguery" and "special interest groups" undermining the judicial system.

He said it was necessary to ensure that judges "can make decisions independent and free from the influence of political winds that may be blowing".

"In my view, we all have to be alert and vigilant to ensure that neither political demagoguery nor special interest groups, be they from whatever quarter, be allowed to undermine the genius of our unique constitutional and judicial system under the umbrella of the 'one country, two systems' principle."

In his speech, Ma said the court did take public interest into account in deciding cases - in particular those involving public law and constitutional principle. But this did not mean that the courts would "look to what sectors of the public or the majority of the public or even the government may desire as the outcome in any given case".

"The public interest that is served by the courts is in the adherence to fundamental concepts of fairness, dignity and justice in the application of the law."

Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung warned against any influence or pressure on judges while people exercised their freedom of speech. "We of course fully respect freedom of speech and people's legal right to express their views," he said at the ceremony. "Caution, however, should be exercised so that judges can decide cases in an environment free from undue interference or pressure of whatever form."

Unlike the political process, the judicial process was not, and should not be, subject to any lobbying, he said.

Neither Ma nor Yuen referred to the political storm whipped up by a request from the Department of Justice for the Court of Final Appeal to ask the National People's Congress Standing Committee for a clarification of the court's 1999 decision on the right of abode.

Ma said some public law areas, such as immigration, involved matters of "the utmost social, political or constitutional sensitivity". Sectors representing different interests would each have "radically different and diametrically opposed views" of what they regarded as the right result in a case.

Adherence to the law and its spirit would be the approach that guided the courts in making a just and right decision. "The Hong Kong community expects its courts and judges to apply the law fairly and equally rather than to determine cases by vague and arbitrary notions of what may be more popular or more attractive as an outcome," he said.

Although the courts did on occasion deal with legal questions arising out of political matters, the courts and their activities ought not be politicised, he said.

"I entirely respect the rights of individuals to exercise their freedom of speech … but the courts and judges will not be influenced by the very many different points of view to which one is exposed these days. The courts and judges will at all times adhere only to the law and to its spirit - the community expects nothing less."