Call by retiring Hong Kong judge must not be ignored
- The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the public has to be prepared to stand up for the city’s independent judiciary and nurture an environment friendly to the rule of law
One of the rare occasions when judges are free to comment publicly on current affairs is, ironically, when they retire. While in office, they are expected to maintain a dignified silence, even when coming under attack. Mr Justice Robert Tang Kwok-ching, a permanent Court of Final Appeal judge, made the most of the opportunity last week, warning that society must stand up for the city’s independent judiciary and nurture an environment friendly to the rule of law. The price of freedom, he said, was eternal vigilance.
The retirement speech, delivered in the presence of the current chief justice and his predecessor, went beyond the customary anecdotes and thanks to those who have helped the judge. Clearly, Mr Justice Tang wanted to send a message to the community. He expressed his confidence that the city’s judges are independent and that the rule of law remains strong. But the judges, he added, could not do it on their own. They need all embracing support from the public. These remarks, from a leading judge who sat on the city’s top court for six years, spent 14 years in the judiciary and almost 50 years in the legal profession, should be taken seriously.
Judges have faced strong, often uninformed, criticism of their decisions in politically sensitive cases in recent years. Mr Justice Tang has first-hand experience of this, having ruled in controversial cases involving prominent student leaders, violent protesters, and the rights of same-sex couples. The judge stated that if the judiciary was unfairly attacked, the community should stand up for the judges. But his point is that the vigilance and support needed goes beyond the reaction to judgments. Constant support from the public, using the city’s free speech and right to vote, was required, he said.
Public confidence in the judiciary also depends on the judges maintaining high standards and demonstrating their commitment to the application of the law, free from any bias. The judiciary currently finds it difficult to attract top lawyers, like Mr Justice Tang, to the bench. Maintaining the quality of the judiciary in the future will be a challenge. But vigilance and wide public support for the rule of law is certainly needed, especially at a time when political divisions and attacks on the judges threaten to undermine respect for the judiciary.