One of the joys of covering court cases in Hong Kong in the 1990s was the absence of security measures. There was no need for them. Judges, lawyers and the public felt safe. Sadly, times have changed. In the last three weeks, six threatening letters have been sent to judges at four courts . Three of them contained caustic soda, a highly corrosive substance. Court premises were evacuated and the bomb squad called. These are disturbing developments. The judges concerned had all jailed protesters involved in the city’s civil unrest two years ago. Security has now been stepped up . Hongkong Post will inspect all mail addressed to courts before delivery and checkpoints for mail will be set up outside judiciary buildings. These ugly attacks have rightly been condemned by the legal profession. The government warned it will “leave no stone unturned” to catch the culprits. But if the perpetrator is in Taiwan, the origin of at least some of the letters, there might not be much they can do. They are not the first attempts to intimidate judges involved in jailing or denying bail to protesters and opposition figures. There were others in December and May. The ongoing threats risk undermining the city’s rule of law. But the attacks should also prompt reflection on the way in which perceptions of the judiciary have changed in recent years. This shocking miscarriage of justice demands answers For a long time, the judges enjoyed high levels of public confidence. They were seen as upholders of the city’s freedoms and generally trusted more than officials or politicians. This began to change as political divisions deepened. Courts came under fire from both the pro-government and opposition camps. They have repeatedly been subjected to ill-informed, politically motivated criticism, complaint and abuse. This is almost always sparked by a court decision one side or the other does not like. Successive chief justices have, year after year, sought to counter this troubling trend with patient explanations of the judiciary’s role. The judges are not to be influenced by political considerations. Their job is to apply the law without fear or favour. But new challenges arise amid the fallout from the disturbances of 2019. Care must be taken to guard against any perception the courts are there to do the government’s bidding. Judges in national security law hearings, for example, must be approved by the chief executive. Beijing has told the judiciary it must fully enforce the policy of “patriots governing Hong Kong”. Meanwhile, the courts are handling hundreds of cases related to protests, with stiff jail terms often imposed. Not guilty verdicts are returned when there is insufficient evidence, but these are often lost amid almost daily reports of convictions and sentences. First security law trial set low bar for very serious crimes The pro-establishment camp’s calls for judicial reform also shape perceptions. A committee has been established to consider complaints against judges. There have also been calls for a new body to advise the courts on sentencing and a move to restrict a person’s choice of lawyer in legal aid cases. Such proposals often appear intended to clip the judges’ wings or make legal challenges to the government more difficult. The chief justice has had to face political pressure of this kind as well as the attempts to criminally intimidate his judges. The role of an independent judiciary must be understood and promoted by officials, lawmakers and wider society. The courts are there to apply the law equally to all. This involves punishing the guilty, but also protecting rights and ensuring the government acts legally. They are not there to lend the government a helping hand. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, in her blog, condemned the threats to judges. She also said: “All of us jointly bear the responsibility to respect judicial independence and the rule of law so as to reinforce the fundamental basis of our society.” I couldn’t agree more. There is a broader issue, too. The violent protests have stopped. But divisions remain, as the attacks on the courts reveal. The government should be doing more to bridge the divide and heal society’s wounds.