Hong Kong's rule of law in safe hands, says judge

It's fiercely independent and frighteningly intellectual, says judge in right-of-abode case where referral to Beijing is being called for

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 5:49am

Hong Kong's judiciary will remain as independent and well-respected as it is today regardless of what cynics may say, according to a top judge.

Mr Justice Michael Hartmann did not specify which cynics as he highlighted the judiciary's critical role in Hong Kong's post-1997 prosperity.

Now a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal following his retirement last July, Hartmann was one of the five judges in the domestic helpers' recent right-of-abode challenge.

The judges' decision is still pending. Their verdict could have an impact on the residency rights of children born in Hong Kong to mainland parents. The judges were also requested by the government's counsel to refer issues in the case to Beijing.

Writing in this month's Hong Kong Lawyer, published by the Law Society, Hartmann said: "Hong Kong is able to boast a very strong judiciary. We have a number of judges who would grace any court in the world. There are a number whose intellectual prowess is formidable, frighteningly so.

"But, in my view, what is most important (indeed critical) is the fact that across the board our judges have a fierce sense of independence allied to a desire to do justice according to law. While those characteristics remain, passed from one generation of judges to the next, we need have no concerns.

"Whatever the cynics may say from time to time, I have no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, that the Hong Kong judiciary will remain the vigorous, independent, well-respected institution that it is today."

I have no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, that the Hong Kong judiciary will remain the vigorous, independent, well-respected institution that it is today

Hartmann also explained why he joined the judiciary in 1991. "One of the reasons why is the fact that I joined a top-rate institution. One that, in my opinion, has had a critical role to play in Hong Kong's post-1997 prosperity," he said.

"The average man on the street in Hong Kong understands the role we play and understands its importance."

He added: "Judges here are drawn from two very proud professions. When a judge puts on judicial robes for the first time, he or she is in no doubt as to what is expected of them; first and foremost, personal integrity. That above all. Incorruptible, independent, educated to the task," he wrote.

Hartmann also stressed a career in the judiciary must remain attractive, not only in respect of salary and pension but in respect of working conditions, too.

And, just like any large organisation, the judiciary had to remain innovative to keep up with its community's changing needs.

The judge described the pressures on judges as "constant" and "unrelenting" and said judicial training was essential to the maintenance of standards.

"The volume of cases increases every year. Judges are bound to a wheel of fire, hearing one case after another, constantly having to produce reasoned judgments," he added.

" I know judges who take leave simply to catch up with their judgments. It is not uncommon for judges to spend all or most of their weekends researching and writing judgments.

"Not only is the volume of cases increasing, their complexity is increasing too. This makes for longer hearings."

Hartmann grew up and went to university in British-ruled Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, but left three years after its independence in 1980. "Regrettably, the government of the day saw me not simply as a defence lawyer but as some sort of ally of the defendants," he said.

"I was advised that I should leave or be deported - and that was when the decision was made to come to Hong Kong." So it was that in 1983, Hartmann, who is also a novelist, arrived to join the then Attorney General's Chambers as a government lawyer.