Court of Final Appeal building is a timeless symbol of Hong Kong's most cherished legal ideals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 7:56am

The Court of Final Appeal has moved back to the former Legislative Council building on Jackson Road, complete with new logo. Its homecoming, so rich with meaning, has delighted the Chief Justice.

What does the building's history say to us? Is history still relevant?

The building was purpose-built as the Supreme Court of the Hong Kong colony and was one of the buildings in Royal Statue Square symbolising British imperial rule.

The foundation stone was laid in 1903 and it was formally opened in 1912 by Sir Frederick Lugard, the governor of Hong Kong, who made a statement about law, justice and architecture.

"Our courts of justice shall always surpass all other structures in durability, firm set on their foundations and built four-square to all the winds that blow, as an outward symbol perhaps of the justice which shall stand firm though the skies fall," he said.

The court building, designed by two prominent British architects, Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) and E. Ingress Bell (1837-1914), is a magnificent two-storey granite structure that combines Greek, Roman, English and Chinese architectural elements and neo-classical style in an elegant way. Aston and Bell also designed the Victoria Law Courts in the English city of Birmingham (1886) and many other famous buildings.

Erected on one of the earliest pieces of reclaimed land in Hong Kong, it was the first purpose-built British court building in the Far East. It was completed more than 20 years before the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington.

After the Supreme Court was removed to a modern, functional, multi-storey building at Queensway, Admiralty, in 1984, the building was used to house the Legislative Council, where it remained until the home of the legislature of the special administrative region moved to a new complex at Tamar.

The architecture of the building is rich in messages. It is an icon of Hong Kong's judicial independence, which has been practised for over a century and is preserved under the solemn pledge of "one country, two systems".

The blindfolded Themis standing right above the royal coat of arms is a visual reiteration of the centuries-old ideal of rule of law that even the sovereign must be subject to the law and reason. The administration of justice under the dome has to live up to that spirit.

Over the years, the architecture has helped to shape public understanding and expectations of the legal system. Fairness and impartiality, as symbolised by Themis, are the legal values that people treasure most.

With the reoccupation by the Court of Final Appeal, the building will continue to convey the meaning of rule of law across time through its language of architecture, the practice of judicial independence, and the upholding of justice and equality.

Simon T.M. Ng is an assistant professor and senior programme director of law at the School of Professional and Continuing Education, University of Hong Kong