Trust in our legal system is essential
Attacking the impartiality and credibility of judges and courts will undermine our legal system. We are free to discuss the merits or otherwise of rulings, but we must respect them
Hong Kong society has been deeply split since the Occupy protests in 2014. Public opinion is sharply divided between those who support the movement and those who condemn it. One of the most worrying manifestations of this trend is the attacks on the credibility and impartiality of the judiciary. It is undermining confidence in the city’s legal system.
The jailing of three student leaders last week, after an appeal by the government, has sparked much debate. There is nothing wrong with discussing decisions of the courts and expressing opinions on whether sentences are too severe or too lenient. However, some critics of the Court of Appeal decision, including foreign media, have accused the three judges involved of having political motives. Such views are misconceived and are an affront to Hong Kong’s proud tradition of judicial independence.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor gave a robust defence of the impartiality of the legal process yesterday, stressing that the decision to seek tougher sentences was taken by the Department of Justice alone and that the outcome lay with an independent court. This followed the Bar Association and Law Society issuing a rare joint statement asserting their faith in the impartiality of the judges.
Six months ago, a judge who jailed seven police officers for a brutal assault on an Occupy activist also came under fire, from the other side of the political spectrum. He was subjected to abuse and even threats. This is not acceptable. The Court of Appeal judges who imposed prison sentences on Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang did so on the basis of legal principle, not political bias. One of the judges used emotive language to warn against reckless breaking of the law in the name of pursuing ideals. It might have been better if a more moderate tone had been adopted. But judges deliver their rulings without interference, political or otherwise. The court’s judgment provides new sentencing guidelines, setting out the factors to be weighed in cases of unlawful assembly. That is a responsibility of the appeal court.
The plight of the young jailed activists has drawn some sympathy. Tens of thousands marched in protest on Sunday. But there is a need for calm and common sense. Confidence in the judiciary and rule of law must be maintained. It is disappointing that some of those suggesting the court was driven by political motives are well-educated people with legal knowledge. They should know better. Hong Kong’s judges decide cases freely and fearlessly in accordance with legal principles. People may agree or disagree with their judgments, but must respect the impartiality of the process.