Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li speaks at the ceremonial opening of the legal year at City Hall. Photo: Sam Tsang

Hong Kong’s legal big guns tussle over rule of law

Bar Association head slams Hong Kong officials for feeding public a misleading definition, claiming there is undue emphasis on obeying

The Hong Kong government was accused of feeding the public a misleading explanation of the rule of law - moments after the secretary for justice accused the pro-democracy movement of blatantly challenging the rule of law and after the city's top judge insisted respect for the principle remained undimmed.

The fierce debate over the rule of law - that began in earnest when tens of thousands took to the streets in late September and stayed there for 79 days - spilled over into yesterday's annual gathering to launch the start of the new legal year.

Paul Shieh Wing-tai, outgoing chairman of the Bar Association, slammed officials' explanations of what constituted the rule of law when he took to the podium at City Hall. "There was an increasing tendency on the part of the executive … to emphasise the 'obey the law' aspect," he said.

"To the untrained mind or the unsophisticated, this may sound very respectful to the concept of the rule of law. However, in my view and in the view of the Hong Kong Bar, ironically that could have the opposite effect of misleading the public."

He said that citing the need to "do things according to the law creates the misconception that many phenomena in society are the inevitable consequences of adhering to the law when plainly they are not. Law had become the scapegoat or excuse".

Yesterday's opening of the legal year at City Hall. Photo: Sam Tsang
Shieh said rule of law also covered respect for individuals' rights and liberty. He went on to say that Beijing's framework on Hong Kong's political reform was "unreasonably restrictive" but did not justify breaking the law.

His address followed a speech by Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung. The city's top legal official said: "Unfortunately, the rule of law in Hong Kong is facing significant challenges. The recent Occupy movement ... brings about blatant challenges to the rule of law."

He described the rule of law as "the bedrock of democracy and universal suffrage". He added: "Constitutional development or universal suffrage without the rule of law is no different to a house without foundations."

People convicted for their part in the protests who were claiming that they were victims of political retribution were trying to gain "political mileage", Yuen said.

The pursuit of universal suffrage or social justice "cannot and should not be used" as a justification to act in the detriment of rule of law, he added.


Hong Kong's top judge also joined in the debate in his speech. Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said: "There can be no compromise as far as the rule of law is concerned. It is not something from which there can be any deviation nor can there be any room for bargaining in relation to it."

Speaking afterwards, Ma maintained that the public respected the rule of law, now and throughout the recent turbulence. "Overwhelmingly, most people respect the rule of law," he said. "They respected the rule of law before the Occupy movement, and they respect the rule of law after the Occupy movement.


"I did not believe that there was any contrary view that people thought somehow the rule of law was something not to be respected."

Court injunctions - once defied by a relatively small group of protesters - should be respected, Ma added. He also insisted that politics formed no part in judges' decision-making. "The administration of justice by the courts is not, nor can it be, influenced in the slightest by extraneous factors such as politics or political considerations."

Asked about the State Council's white paper last year - which controversially asked judges to be patriotic - Ma stressed that the city enjoyed judicial independence. "This is not something which is my own opinion - it is what the Basic Law says."



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Legal big guns tussle over rule of law