SCMP, January 14, 2003 By Ravina Shamdasani and Magdalen Chow The chief justice yesterday appeared to step into the debate on proposed anti-subversion laws, using his speech at the opening of the new legal year to call for vigilance from the community on matters concerning the rule of law. Andrew Li Kwok-nang also made a plea for rational debate, saying the enactment of new laws should not involve a 'tussle of strength' between the government and its critics. After the ceremony, attended by the massed ranks of the legal profession, Mr Justice Li denied his comments were a reference to the controversial legislation to be enacted under Article 23 of the Basic Law. He did not refer to the proposed legislation by name in his speech and said later that it would be inappropriate for him, as head of the Judiciary, to express views on the matter. Chuckling, he told reporters: 'No matter how you ask, I will say it is inappropriate for me to comment on Article 23.' But his remarks about the rule of law were widely perceived to have had in mind the debate on the anti-subversion legislation, which has split the community. The call by the top judge for rational debate was followed by a scathing attack by Bar Association chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit on the government's repeated 'exploitation' of the rule of law - a speech which prompted the Department of Justice to issue a lengthy rebuke. The chief justice said in his speech: 'In the last five years, the rule of law has thrived in Hong Kong and we must all continue to exercise vigilance - the whole community - and not only in relation to interpretation and enforcement.' He said the vigilance should be maintained on the protection of human rights and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 'which are applicable to Hong Kong and should be observed'. 'In exercising vigilance, debate in the community is essential. And it is always important that debate is conducted calmly, rationally and thoroughly. This applies to discussion of court judgments as well as to debate on the formulation of new laws,' he said. 'Debate on these issues is not and should not be regarded as a tussle of strength involving government and polarised sections of the community, with victories and defeats. It would be a very sad day if this were so.' Mr Leong, meanwhile, making his final legal new year speech before stepping down as chairman of the Bar, criticised the government for a string of actions since the handover which he said had undermined the rule of law. These included asking the National People's Congress Standing Committee to overturn a landmark right of abode judgment by the Court of Final Appeal in 1999. 'It has been perceived any decision of the CFA is only final if the government wants it to be.' Mr Leong criticised the conviction of political activist Leung Kwok-hung, or 'Long Hair', under the Public Order Ordinance last year as 'draconian', saying the law was being used to protect the government rather than people's rights. Mr Leong called on the government to pledge never to seek another reinterpretation from the National People's Congress and to undertake a consultation on the Public Order Ordinance. And he urged the government to issue a white bill on anti-subversion laws saying 'the rule of law should never yield in the name of alleged expediency and efficiency of government'. A statement issued by the Department of Justice said it was regrettable the Bar chief used the ceremony to 'launch an attack' that was 'sweeping and exaggerated'. Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie expressed 'surprise' at the remarks. *For more stories, read the main section of the SCMP.