In a not-so-subtle speech to local and mainland officials, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li yesterday stressed the importance of judicial independence and rule of law to Hong Kong while dismissing the possibility judges would avoid rulings unfavourable to the government. Amid intense debate on the city's legal system that has seen the independence of courts called into question, Ma used the opening of the new Court of Final Appeal building to discuss rule of law in the context of the common law system that sets the former British colony apart from the rest of the nation. WATCH: Hong Kong's Chief Justice highlights city's 'rule of law' in speech with CY in attendance "Those components of the rule of law which are of particular relevance to Hong Kong - indeed to all common law jurisdictions, of which Hong Kong is one - comprise first, the due recognition of rights and fundamental freedoms," Ma told an audience including the mainland's Chief Justice Zhou Qiang, liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Those rights and freedoms include equality for all persons before the law, while the common law which emphasises fairness and justice "has served Hong Kong well over the years and will continue to do so", Ma said. The speech came just a fortnight after Zhang sparked controversy by describing the role of chief executive as "transcendent" over the three branches of government, including the judiciary, and insisting separation of powers did not apply in the city. In his speech, Ma stressed the courts would continue to rule impartially, even in cases to which the government was a party. "Decisions of the courts may sometimes not be to everybody's liking - whether they be private individuals, political and other groups, or even the government - but it is not the role of the courts to make popular decisions," Ma said. "The function of the courts is to adjudicate on disputes according to the law and its spirit." In line with the court's traditions, Ma spoke in English. He sat alongside fellow top-court judges including non-permanent judge Lord Justice Neuberger, who also serves as president of Britain's Supreme Court. His speech came as his predecessor, Andrew Li Kwok-nang, reiterated the importance of judicial independence. Li also repeated his call for overseas judges to continue to sit on the court after 2047, when Beijing's guarantees under "one country, two systems" expire. "In the face of rule of law, anyone, however high his position, cannot be above the law," Li said on the sidelines of the ceremony. A day earlier, he made similar points and urged Beijing to refrain from overriding decisions of the top court. In response, a Department of Justice spokesman said while the National People's Congress had plenary power of interpretation of the Basic Law, the department would handle Hong Kong affairs through the local systems within the Basic Law framework "as far as possible". The spokesman added the appointment of overseas judges was conducive to the development of common law and would not give rise to inconsistency with the mini-constitution. Another former chief justice, Yang Ti-liang, declined to comment as he left the court, saying Li and Ma had been very clear. Asked if he was worried about rule of law, Yang waved his hand and shook his head. Zhou, who sat alongside chief justices from jurisdictions including Canada, Australia and Macau, attracted protests outside court. Protesters criticised his role as provincial chief in Hunan province in 2012, when the suspicious death of June 4 activist Li Wangyang was officially declared a suicide. Apparently unused to the customs of Hong Kong's courtrooms, Zhou started applauding at the end of Ma's speech - but stopped abruptly when he realised no one else was doing so.