Hong Kong courts

‘Eternal vigilance’ needed in Hong Kong to uphold rule of law, top court judge says in farewell

  • Distinguished Court of Final Appeal permanent judge voices confidence in city’s judicial independence but believes standing one’s ground not enough
  • He ruled in influential cases, involving final appeal involving pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and landmark overturning of visa policy on gay spouses
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 8:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 10:59pm

A distinguished Hong Kong judge who has ruled on significant civil rights cases, including those involving pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, has urged the city to stand up for its rule of law before it is too late.

Court of Final Appeal Permanent Judge Mr Justice Robert Tang Kwok-ching voiced confidence in the city’s judicial independence, but believed it was not enough simply for judges to stand their ground.

The public needed to exercise “eternal vigilance” to continue enjoying a free press and free elections to make their voices heard and votes count, Tang said on Monday during his leaving speech as a permanent judge of the top court.

“If we as a community insist on the rule of law, it cannot be taken from us easily.”

“Do not make it easy,” the 71-year-old added in what was one of the most strongly worded remarks by a judge in the city in recent memory.

Tang’s speech was delivered in Central before robed judges, including former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, barristers, solicitors and staff from the Department of Justice. They came to praise Tang’s legal career spanning almost half a century, including more than 14 years as a judge.

If we as a community insist on the rule of law, it cannot be taken from us easily
Mr Justice Robert Tang Kwok-ching

Tang was speaking amid an increasingly politicised climate for lawyers, government prosecutors and judicial officers over the past few years.

Cases have involved police officers jailed for assaulting protesters, and pro-Beijing supporters launching personal attacks on judges’ rulings based on their ethnicity. Similarly, pro-democracy activists have criticised judges and prosecutors for their rulings or decision-making, such as jailing activists such as Wong, who became the face of the 2014 Occupy movement.

Worries that Beijing will more tightly control Hong Kong have fanned fears among pro-democracy supporters and many in the international community that the city’s rule of law could suffer.

But on Monday, Tang, who will end his six-year stint at the top court and instead become a non-permanent judge, said: “I can say with confidence and in good conscience, judges are independent and the rule of law is going strong in Hong Kong.”

He warned, however, society should not “let its guard down” just because judges were doing their job and the city was still practising common law.

“It is protean power, unless adequately controlled by the proper application of human rights law, that can be misused,” he said, adding that it could be “oppressive”.

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Tang therefore said it was up to the community to play a part. He urged people to stand up when the judiciary was under unfair attack.

Without elaborating, he said such support should not merely be driven by events, arguing: “That is not enough. It may be too late.”

Tang called on people to nurture an environment receptive to the rule of law. “We have a free press and free elections in Hong Kong. Make your voice heard and your vote count.”

Judges were chosen for their abilities and not for political reasons, he said, noting he had once served on a commission tasked with overseeing judicial employment. He said the top court’s approach of enlisting foreign judges had bolstered confidence in the independence of the city’s legal system.

Tang was one of the justices who ruled on the final appeal in which Wong and fellow protesters Alex Chow Yong-kang and Nathan Law Kwun-chung, an ousted lawmaker, were freed from jail in February.

In July, Tang ruled in the case of QT, a lesbian expatriate who made history in Hong Kong by getting a strict immigration policy overturned. Previously dependant visas were only granted to a spouse in a heterosexual relationship.

Tang will be succeeded by Chief Judge of the High Court Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung. Current Court of Appeal vice-president Mr Justice Wally Yeung Chun-kuen will temporarily take up Cheung’s position before his vacancy is filled.

A judiciary spokesman said: “Relevant procedures are in progress and the result will be announced at an appropriate time.”

Tang obtained a bachelor of law degree from Birmingham University in 1969. He worked first as a barrister in private practice, then as a Court of First Instance judge in 2004, a Court of Appeal judge the following year and a permanent judge at the top court in 2012.

Among his many pupils was Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, who said it was “not an exaggeration to say that Mr Justice Tang had arguably the most successful practice” at the bar when he left a highly lucrative career to serve the community.

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“The sacrifice that is made is a real one,” Ma added. “The community has been fortunate to have had Mr Justice Tang as one of its judges.”

Solicitor general Wesley Wong Wai-chung, who attended the event on behalf of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, praised Tang for nurturing generations of legal professionals in the city.

Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes described his predecessor at the legal body as “one of the best judges”.

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“What made him excel was that he knew what Hong Kong people expected of him,” Dykes said. “He will be missed by the bar.”

Law Society president Melissa Kaye Pang, who revealed that both she and her late father had instructed Tang while he was still a barrister, said Tang was “the most sought after practitioner” and described him as “the embodiment of the best traditions in our honourable profession”.

Hong Kong’s top judges are required to retire at age 65, though extensions are awarded on discretion. There is no retirement age for the top court’s non-permanent judges.

Tang was awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal this year in recognition of “his distinguished service in the judiciary”.