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Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng with Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal Geoffrey Ma at the Ceremonial Opening of Legal Year 2019 in City Hall. Photo: Robert Ng

National anthem being played at swearing-in ceremonies for judges will not affect judicial independence, says Hong Kong chief justice

  • Speaking after a ceremony marking the opening of the 2019 legal year, Geoffrey Ma says both foreign and local appointees will swear the same oath
  • Ma also says attacks on judges are unacceptable

Hong Kong’s chief justice made it clear on Monday that he saw no problem with China’s national anthem being played at oath-taking ceremonies for both local and foreign judges in the city, promising they would continue to uphold the law independently.

Geoffrey Ma Tao-li spoke publicly for the first time about the new bill to criminalise abuse of the national anthem, which would require March of the Volunteers to be played at important official occasions such as the swearing-in of top officials, lawmakers and judges.

Ma saw no problem with future swearing-in arrangements, which would also be binding on overseas judges temporarily sitting on the Hong Kong bench, as both the foreign and local appointees would take the same oath.

“If the seriousness of the occasion is underlined by the playing of the national anthem, which is common all over the world, I think it’s appropriate and right,” Ma said.

He stressed the judges would still decide cases based on the principles of judicial independence and equality before the law.

“The binding principle … won’t change, whether or not there’s a national anthem law,” said the Chief Justice.

Ma was speaking after the opening of the 2019 legal year on Monday, when he and other top figures in Hong Kong’s legal circles decried attacks on the city’s judges, saying the abusive criticism was unacceptable and a threat to confidence in the city’s courts.

In his opening speech, Ma noted that the “community’s confidence in what the courts do” would be “a feature of our community we must strive to maintain”.

Without specifying any of the high-profile rulings for which the courts has drawn fire, the chief justice acknowledged “the past year has seen courts at every level adjudicate on controversial cases”.

Personal attacks on judges threaten one of our greatest assets

“There have over the past year been criticism levelled against decisions of the courts and sometimes even personally against judges. Such criticisms have ranged from the abusive, which are totally unacceptable, to imputations of political bias,” Ma said.

Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal Geoffrey Ma at the ceremonial opening of the 2019 legal year. Photo: Robert Ng

He said criticism of the court was always welcome as long as it was informed and constructive.

Criticisms have ranged from the abusive, which are totally unacceptable, to imputations of political bias
Geoffrey Ma, Hong Kong Chief Justice

Ma emphasised that “it is no part of a court’s function or duty to adjudicate on political or social issues, nor economic ones, whether siding with one extreme or another, or finding some sort of middle ground to solve the community’s political, social or economic concerns.

“Rather, at all times, the court is concerned with dealing with one aspect and one aspect only: a resolution of the legal issues arising in the dispute before it,” he said.

Ma added after the ceremony that while Beijing always has the power to issue its interpretation of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, an interpretation which would be binding on Hong Kong courts, judges would deal with any cases “carefully and in full accordance with the law”, regardless of whether people like or dislike the outcome.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah struck a similar note and warned: “We have seen totally baseless, arbitrary and even malicious attacks on some of our judges simply because the outcome of particular cases was not to the liking of those making the attacks.

“Such acts and utterances are not to be tolerated and where evidence and circumstances justify, legal action will be taken.”

‘Sinners of society’ attack on judges rebuked by Hong Kong leader

At the same ceremony, the head of the Bar Association Philip Dykes said his association would speak out when there was criticism of courts judgments that questioned the independence and neutrality of judges, noting that “unwarranted attacks on our judges have not stopped” over the past year.

“Unless rebutted promptly and effectively, they will have a corrosive effect on trust in the judiciary,” said Dykes.

Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal Geoffrey Ma inspects a guard of honour at the ceremonial opening of the 2019 legal year. Photo: Robert Ng

The liberal barrister also noted that the Bar Association “is often accused of playing politics should its views coincide with one side and not another’s” and he assured the public that the association “holds that the state of the Law is equal for all people and cannot depend on a political stance or attitude”.

In her address, Law Society president Melissa Pang also criticised the use of “personal attacks on judges” which, she said, “have no place in rational discourse and debate that is a hallmark of a civil society”.

Monday’s ceremony was also marked by a rare protest, with Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung standing up from his second-row seat with a banner “Stop the rule of man” when the secretary for justice opened her speech reiterating the government’s commitment to the rule of law.

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The quick and sudden stunt prompted a few staff members to approach Hui but none took action and Cheng continued with her speech.

Hui later said he wanted to reflect the public’s perception that the rule of law is being gradually replaced by the rule of man, as seen in the disqualification of election candidates for their political views and the Department of Justice’s decision not to seek external legal advice before dropping the case against former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for alleged misconduct.

“At this solemn ceremony, I believe nobody is willing to state the fact that Hong Kong’s rule of law is declining,” he told reporters afterwards. “I did not want to bring too much politics in here so I did not carry out radical action. I believe lawmakers will have a lot of questions at the Legislative Council.”

Cheng declined to comment.

Ma, the chief justice, struck a careful note that the purpose of the opening of legal year historically has always been to talk about Hong Kong’s legal system and rule of law, “rather than a vehicle for anything else”.

He also declined to offer his view on Leung’s case and the impact on the rule of law, saying the judiciary is the guardian of law and justice, but not guardian of the prosecution”.

Former Bar Association chairman Edward Chan King-sang, who called the department’s handling of Leung’s case “regrettable”, said he did not find Hui’s stunt obstructive since the lawmaker merely expressed his views.

Legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok said he believed the ceremony should not be used for political demonstrations but said he “completely understood” why Hui would express such a view during Cheng’s speech.

“I believe no one would use the occasion for political demonstrations if the secretary for justice quelled public concerns,” he added.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ma b acks anthem at official ceremonies