On political battlefield, judiciary’s role as referee must be respected

We should ensure the politicisation of Hong Kong does not spill over into abuse of its judges

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 11:47pm

The courts and the judiciary continue to enjoy positive ratings for impartiality and fairness in public opinion surveys by the University of Hong Kong. But you would not have known it in Eastern Court last week as some in the public gallery swore at Magistrate Chu Chung-keung after he jailed former lawmaker Wong Yuk-man for two weeks for throwing a glass at Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a Legislative Council meeting two years ago. The judiciary says it will consider whether action is warranted over the foul-mouthed behaviour of Wong’s supporters.

Amid a volatile political climate, the incident serves to underline the importance of upholding respect for the judicial process. In the emotionally charged atmosphere ahead of a hearing in the High Court next week in a judicial review launched by the government to disqualify two young pro-independence lawmakers over an oath-taking fiasco, that is a timely reminder.

For the second time in two years, the politicisation of Hong Kong is testing the city’s rule of law under an independent judicial system.

Popular opinion won't sway judiciary, says Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li

In the wake of the Occupy Central protests in 2014, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said the public had respected the rule of law throughout the turbulence. Nonetheless, it is not to be taken for granted. On both sides, as cases arising from Occupy Central wound their way through the courts, we saw judges coming in for criticism.

To be sure, the judiciary is robust and judges are resilient to criticism rather thanbeing treated as off limits to it. Indeed, reasonable criticism does no harm. That goes with the territory of open court hearings in which justice is seen to be done. But when it takes the form of foul-mouthed abuse of a magistrate who has handed down a sentence or, in another recent example, of a razor blade included in a threatening letter to an electoral returning officer who disqualified a localist candidate, or of attacks on the judiciary in pro-establishment protests, it is time for reflection.

The High Court hearing on the judicial review is bound to arouse strong feelings. Some people may be tempted to stretch the boundaries of reasonable criticism, if not violate them. With the government and the legislature embroiled in conflict and controversy, one branch that does seem to be functioning well in the public’s eyes is the judiciary. For the sake of our core value of the rule of law, we should ensure the politicisation of Hong Kong does not spill over into abuse of its judges.