For a city that prides itself as a champion for the rule of law, it is not unusual that judges and lawyers should emphasise the principle at the start of the new legal year. What made the ceremony different this year, however, was the stress on the need for an independent judiciary. The warnings against putting political pressure on the courts is to be welcomed when public confidence has been dampened by a series of legal and political controversies.
If the chief justice’s annual address is seen as the barometer of how challenging the legal environment is, the speech this year was highly illuminating. Unlike last year, when the speech began with a nostalgic touch on the Court of Final Appeal returning to the historic Legco building, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li weighed into the rule of law debate at the very start. He rightly pointed out that although the courts do occasionally have to handle legal questions arising from political matters, it doesn’t mean the process can be politicised. While sometimes the public does get emotional about the issues before the bench, judges can but adhere to the law at all times. The community, he said, expects nothing less from the Judiciary.
Forceful assurances can also be found from the secretary for justice. Speaking for the first time in his ministerial capacity, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung also stressed that the court should be able to rule in an environment free from undue pressure or interference. Unlike the political process, judicial proceedings are not subject to any lobbying, and should not be so.
Hong Kong’s success owes much to our firm adherence to the rule of law. It protects our freedom, provides a level playing field for businesses and guards against abuse of power by the government. But these can only be achieved if judges can apply legal principles freely, fairly and fearlessly when ruling on matters brought before them. The law should not be applied according to public sentiments or which way the political wind is blowing. It is important that judicial independence is not only upheld, but also seen as being so.