Court ruling stresses need for quality debates in legislature
As former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung is cleared of contempt, one is reminded that freedom of expression must not be used as an excuse for political chaos
Snatching things from someone without permission is hardly right. But when it is a case involving a lawmaker grabbing an official’s file during a Legislative Council meeting, it is considered in a different light. The decision by West Kowloon Court to clear former opposition legislator Leung Kwok-hung of contempt is certainly as controversial as his act. Pressure on the government to lodge an appeal is growing.
The magistrate ruled the provision that seeks to punish anyone for disrupting the legislature’s order under the Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance does not apply to lawmakers. The law serves to safeguard members’ freedom of speech, including verbal and other means of expression.
Given Legco can only function through its members, any attempt to limit the privilege by an offence of contempt may have wide repercussions and should be taken cautiously, the magistrate said. She also noted that Legco had rules to deal with members’ behaviour, adding that serious offences such as criminal damage, assault and theft would still be covered by the law.
The ruling is seen by some as clearing the way for more unruly behaviour. It would be unfortunate if this was the case. Describing the ruling as unconstitutional, the prosecution said it would consider the next step after studying it carefully. Whether an appeal is warranted is a matter for the Department of Justice to consider. Given the wider implications, there is a case to seek further clarification.
Lawmakers must be more mindful of their conduct and behaviour. Increasingly, more members have resorted to disruptive tactics, hurling objects or storming the chamber in an attempt to express their dissent or to block what has been tabled. The pace of scrutiny is far from efficient.
At stake are not just lawmakers’ privileges; but also the council’s order and effective governance. No matter whether Leung’s action is punishable under the provision in question, the ruling must not be seen as giving the green light to such behaviour. The legislature is the arena for rational discussion. While members’ freedom of expression must not be unduly restricted, we need quality debates rather than political stunts and chaos.