Hong Kong legal system must be shown respect
Those who publicly attack the decisions of judges would do well to read their relevant rulings to find out just why they reached their legal conclusions
The ceremonial opening of the new legal year provides a valuable opportunity for the leaders of Hong Kong’s legal profession to comment on matters relevant to the court system and rule of law.
Various topical issues featured in the speeches this week, from the debate about a new rail link to proposals for raising the retirement age for judges. But a common theme, mentioned by legal chiefs, was the importance of the city’s independent judiciary and the need for it to be respected. This is not surprising after judges ruling in cases with political overtones were subjected to unjustified criticism and abuse.
The latest example saw Indian-born magistrate Bina Chainrai come under fire from supporters of a senior police officer she jailed for three months for beating a bystander with his baton during the Occupy protests of 2014.
Last year, judges who jailed student activists faced unwarranted allegations of political bias. Criticism has come from either one side of the political spectrum or the other, depending on the outcome of the case. This is a worrying manifestation of the political divisions that have arisen in the city.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li pointed out there was nothing wrong with constructive criticism of the judiciary. That forms part of Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and can help lead to improvements in the system. But he stressed any criticism, or praise, of judges should be made on an informed basis.
The top judge devoted the first part of his speech to explaining what he meant by this. He drew attention to the fact that judges were required to provide detailed legal reasoning for their rulings. They explain the way in which their decisions are reached. These judgments, with very few exceptions, are published and publicly available. His plea was for people to at least take the trouble to read the relevant judgment and understand the basis for a decision before criticising it.
The principle of open justice is one of the pillars of Hong Kong’s system. It is reasonable to expect critics of court judgments to make use of the available materials to try to understand the reasoning behind them. It would be too optimistic to expect politically motivated attacks on judges to suddenly cease, while critics digest complex rulings and form more objective opinions. But it is important for leaders of the profession to speak up for the judges who have a difficult job to do in the current environment. The attacks on them have often been ill-informed and arbitrary.
The courts will hear many more politically sensitive cases this year. Rulings should be open to public scrutiny and criticism, but the debate should be rational and well-informed. Whether we agree with a particular judgment, the legal process must be respected.