Hong Kong courts

Chris Patten’s shots at Hong Kong’s legal system only hurt his credibility, not our judiciary’s

Grenville Cross says that the former governor’s choice to side with the protesters, rather than the justice system that convicted them, or the guards injured in the fracas, merely reflects his biases as a commentator

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 7:24pm

He came, he blustered, he went. When former governor Chris Patten visited Hong Kong last week to promote his latest book, he fired off brickbats in all directions. His primary target was Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung. Patten claimed, without evidence, that Yuen’s decision to apply to the Court of Appeal to review the community service orders imposed on three activists for complicity in the offence of unlawful assembly, was “political”, something not suggested in court proceedings.

When interviewed by TVB News, Patten, having acknowledged Yuen’s legal right to challenge lenient sentences, then claimed he should have done nothing in this particular case, for reasons which beggar belief. “I defy anybody, when they look at the reactions around the world and in the community, to say it was a sensible thing to do,” he said.

The Court of Appeal, however, accepted Yuen’s submissions as sensible, and acted upon them. Had the judges considered that Yuen acted as he did for improper reasons, they would undoubtedly have given him short shrift.

Patten’s claim that Yuen should have done nothing, because activists’ supporters would get upset, betokens a shocking ignorance of how our legal system works. Nobody is above the law, and the idea that activists who have important friends should be allowed to escape just deserts is extraordinary, even from a layman. There cannot be one law for political activists and another for everyone else, and Yuen is to be commended for discharging his duties even-handedly, despite outside pressure and noise.

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Though Patten at every turn oozed concern for the activists, not once during his four days here did he express an iota of sympathy for the 10 security guards injured in the fracas. One guard, Chan Kei-lun, sustained bruises, swelling and even a fracture, and had to take 39 days’ sick leave, yet Patten had no words of comfort. His concern was at all times with the activists, not the victims, and despite their criminality he encouraged them to keep faith in the rule of law.

Lip service to the rule of law notwithstanding, Patten failed to condemn a planned, protracted and violent invasion of a restricted area, and chose instead to cosy up to its perpetrators. He wholly disregarded the need for the courts in any civilised society to discourage violent public disorder through realistic sentencing.

After Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor condemned British politicians and commentators who questioned judicial independence in Hong Kong, Patten indignantly denied that he had been critical of judges. However, in light of his previous analysis, his attempt to back-pedal strained credulity. Having told the Financial Times the imprisonment of the three men was a “deplorable decision”, he must have known that the decision he condemned was in fact taken by the three judges in the Court of Appeal, not Yuen or the government.

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Moreover, although the judges hearing the sentence review faithfully discharged their duty according to law, without fear of possible backlash from outsiders, Patten, for reasons best known to himself, failed to give them any credit for upholding the rule of law in difficult circumstances.

His badmouthing of our legal system may harm Hong Kong’s standing in some places, but the real damage here is to Patten’s credibility as a serious commentator on local affairs. Friends of Hong Kong know our legal system is one of the finest in Asia, and will have no difficulty in seeing through his bluster.

Patten, unfortunately, appears to view the criminality of those whose political agenda he likes through rose-tinted spectacles. He must understand that violence is always intolerable, whoever is responsible. His comments were biased and unfair, and violate basic legal principle and practice, whether in Hong Kong or Britain.

Patten came here to promote his book, and will hopefully have sold a few copies. We must hope, however, for the readers’ sake, that the text is not as seriously flawed as were his comments about our legal system.

Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst