Top justice officials back independence of Hong Kong courts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 4:19am

The two most senior figures in Hong Kong's judicial system yesterday defended the independence of the courts in the face of calls by Beijing officials for more "co-operation" between the three branches of government and public abuse of judges.

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said public confidence in the judiciary's integrity rested "on a truly independent judiciary, judges who look no further than the proper application of the law, both in letter and in spirit, and the importance of ensuring transparency in all that the courts do in order to demonstrate the integrity of the law". Meanwhile, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung lambasted people who he said had resorted to "abusive attacks" on judges for reaching decisions with which they did not agree.

He added that "true respect of the rule of law" meant people should exercise their rights within the boundaries permitted by the law. The pair were speaking at the opening ceremony for the 2014 legal year.

Asked about Beijing officials' view that there ought to be "co-operation" between the executive, legislature and judiciary, Ma said the Basic Law stipulated clearly and repeatedly that Hong Kong exercised separation of these powers.

Liaison office propaganda chief Hao Tiechuan last year poured cold water on the idea that Hong Kong exercised separation of powers because the chief executive had more power than the legislature and the judiciary. Rejecting "abusive attacks" on judges, Yuen said: "Some have even indicated that they would compile a list of judges whom they considered politically biased and would request their removal.

"However well-intended their subjective motives might be, such conduct should not be encouraged," he said.

"Deliberate attempts to act in breach of the law, even for causes which may sound noble, should not be encouraged."

Radical lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung last year called for a "civil monitor" on judges' performance after several magistrates' sentences on protesters were reduced on appeal.

The top court sparked controversy last month by ruling that new immigrants no longer had to wait seven years to receive welfare benefits. Without addressing any particular case, Ma described certain public law cases as difficult and a test to "the demarcation lines between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary". But he said the constitutional line was clear. "Courts and judges deal only with the legal issues arising in the disputes that come before them and we determine only these legal issues."

Ma remained tight-lipped on political topics including public nominations for the chief executive and the Occupy Central civil disobedience plan. He said they were "hypothetical" and it was beyond his constitutional role to comment.

Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh Wing-tai said if the government wanted to reject a Basic Law-compliant reform proposal on political grounds, it should "call a spade a spade".

He added: "What we do not want to see is for political objections to be presented as legal objections."