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Hong Kong’s top judge Geoffrey Ma urges new senior counsel to play ‘critical part’ in promoting rule of law in society loaded with controversial events

Chief justice’s remarks came during appointment ceremony at Court of Final Appeal building

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 2:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 4:52pm

Hong Kong’s top judge on Saturday urged newly appointed senior barristers to play their “critical part” in promoting the rule of law in the city as the legal sector found itself dealing with an increasing number of controversial issues affecting society.

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li also put out a reminder that the appointment of the city’s judges was concerned only with “judicial and professional qualities”, as the recent recruitment of two leading overseas judges, perceived to be liberal thinkers, had worried pro-establishment lawmakers.

His remarks came during an appointment ceremony at the Court of Final Appeal building, at which four members of the bar were elevated to the prestigious rank of senior counsel.

Addressing a courtroom full of legal practitioners, including the secretary for justice, Ma said that since 1997 – the year in which Britain handed Hong Kong back to China – people in the city had become more aware of their rights in their daily life. He was referring to those arising from the city’s Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and Bill of Rights.

A lot of these rights go in different directions, the chief justice said.

“It is the task of the courts to adjudicate on these different points of view and they do so in accordance with the law, legal principle and the spirit of the law,” he said.

But Ma, chief justice since 2010, said that sometimes people lost sight of that when the events in question were tied to “controversial political, economic or social events”.

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He said members of the public who had formed a strong opinion on an issue would then view the law as “synonymous with the result”.

“It is in the above context that the role of the leaders of the legal profession comes into play,” he said, stressing that leading legal practitioners should shoulder the responsibility to promote and educate the public on how the law operates.

His speech came amid a string of political events that have entangled the court in the past few years, including the disqualification of six lawmakers, the jailing of seven police officers convicted of assaulting a protester during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy campaign, and the incarceration of student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and his comrades.

These events often led to criticism of the court and sometimes even personal attacks on judges.

At the opening ceremony of the legal year in January, Ma had also warned about “unwarranted criticisms” against the city’s rule of law.

On Saturday, without referring to a specific event, he also said: “One completely forgets also that only two qualities are stated in the Basic Law for the appointment of judges: judicial and professional qualities.

“Their views, political or otherwise, or any other aspect, do not enter into it.”

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In May, Hong Kong appointed Britain’s top judge, Brenda Hale, and Canada’s former top judge Beverley McLachlin, as the first women to join the Court of Final Appeal.

Their vocal support for same-sex rights sparked worries from pro-establishment lawmakers in the city, as the court has become a prominent front for LGBTI advocates to fight for equal rights.

Criminal barristers Maggie Wong Pui-kei, Edwin Choy Wai-bond and Derek Chan Ching-lung, and Pao Jin-long, who predominately practises civil law, were on Saturday appointed senior counsel – or had “taken silk” as it is known in the profession. All four have had roles in high-profile cases.

Wong, then prosecuting, and Chan, defending, were involved in the corruption trials of the city’s former leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen last year.

Pao, who specialises in public law, is representing the Department of Justice in a contempt of court trial arising from protesters’ refusal to leave a pro-democracy Occupy protest site in 2014.

Choy defended former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan in a corruption trial in 2014.

Ma’s remarks on Saturday were echoed by Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes SC, who also praised the new senior counsel.

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Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah also acknowledged there had been an increasing burden on legal practitioners and called on the four to “defend baseless accusations against our judiciary”.

Thomas So Shiu-tsung, president of the Law Society, the professional body for solicitors, spoke of accusations against judges and lawyers who represent unpopular clients.

“We must defend our core values,” he said, urging lawyers not to succumb to external influences.