Hong Kong Basic Law

It is vital to uphold the rule of law and respect for the judiciary

As Hong Kong becomes increasingly politicised, concerns are growing that the legal system is being undermined. But our institutions are up to the challenge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 2:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 2:20am

The opening of the new legal year is like a throwback to a bygone era, with judges in ceremonial wigs and buckled shoes. But the occasion serves an important purpose. It is a rare opportunity for the leaders of the legal profession to speak publicly about matters of concern. The ceremony focuses attention on the rule of law and can help further public understanding of the legal system. Such understanding is much needed.

It is no coincidence that the chief justice, secretary for justice and chairman of the bar all expressed concern in their speeches about politically motivated attacks on the courts. Hong Kong has become increasingly political and polarised. There have been violent protests and political debate has often descended into verbal abuse. It is disturbing that this unwelcome trend has led to extreme criticism of court decisions.

Magistrates have been subjected to abuse and even threats. Prosecutors, too, have come under fire. The views expressed – whether criticising a conviction, an acquittal, or a sentence – have often depended on the political leanings of the critics rather than a rational examination of the case.

Hong Kong legal heavyweights warn against Beijing interpretations of Basic Law

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li is right to accept that judges are not immune from criticism. Court decisions should be open to public scrutiny and debate. But criticism should be informed and rational. It must focus on the merits of the case and the way in which legal principles are applied. Ma was at pains to stress that the courts treat all who come before them equally. There is a need for the judicial process, involving a fair and fearless application of legal principles, to be respected and better understood. Political attacks on those tasked with administering justice risk undermining the rule of law.

Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung and Bar Association chief Winnie Tam Wan-chi also referred to Beijing’s recent interpretation of the Basic Law in their speeches. They did not question the central government’s power to make the interpretation, which was issued to swiftly resolve the controversy over lawmakers’ oaths. But the two lawyers suggested that disputes over the Basic Law are, as far as possible, best left to our city’s courts to resolve. It is to be hoped that future interpretations from Beijing will be rare.

The speeches reflect concern that our city’s highly charged political environment might undermine the judicial system. But they also show a quiet confidence that our legal institutions are up to the challenge. It is vital that all in the community strive to maintain respect for the courts and uphold the rule of law.