Personal attacks on judges threaten one of Hong Kong’s greatest assets
Such criticism damages confidence in the rule of law, leading to misconceived claims by those overseas that the city’s judiciary is not independent
Hong Kong has long enjoyed a reputation for being one of the few places in the region where legal disputes are settled fairly. It was therefore worrying to hear former justice secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung speak recently of misconceptions overseas about the integrity of our justice system. Yuen said he had heard people in the United States and Singapore telling others the city could not be trusted to resolve arbitration disputes if they involve a company from the mainland. He was right to seek to dispel such misguided notions. Hong Kong’s arbitrators deliver fair decisions regardless of where the parties to a dispute come from. Their impartiality is key to the city’s aim to become an international arbitration centre for 70 countries and regions involved in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.
But perception can be as important as reality. Confidence in the legal system must be maintained. The government should be leading the way in speaking up for our judges. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor did just that last week when defending the Court of Final Appeal, which came under attack when it overturned jail terms imposed on 13 protesters. This prompted pro-establishment politician Stanley Ng Chau-pei to brand the judges “killers of young people” and “sinners of society” on social media. Lam responded by saying it is unacceptable for people to make inappropriate comments or personal attacks on judges simply because they disagree with a court judgment.
Her comments are welcome. The government must defend the integrity of our judicial process, regardless of whether it happens to have won or lost in court. Judges are not immune from criticism. There should be public scrutiny and debate of their decisions, but as Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said in successive speeches at the opening of the past two legal years, criticism should be informed and rational. Critics should at least make an attempt to understand the court’s reasoning before expressing their views. The top court has not yet released the detailed reasoning behind its protest judgment, and a fully informed view of the decision will not be possible until it has.
Former lawmaker Jasper Tsang Yok-sing asked why government officials and politicians are open to criticism, but not judges. Judges are open to criticism, but they are in a different position to lawmakers and officials. They are required to steer clear of political debate and cannot publicly respond to attacks. Sadly, judges have faced abuse from one side of the political divide or the other when ruling on politically sensitive cases. There have been misconceived claims that judges are not independent. Such attacks damage confidence in the judiciary and rule of law, posing a threat to one of our greatest assets.