Hong Kong courts face unprecedented social and political challenges, says city’s chief justice

Geoffrey Ma makes reference to ‘recent events’ and vows judiciary will apply law ‘in an even-handed and principled manner’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 10:34pm

Despite facing unprecedented social and political challenges, Hong Kong courts would continue to apply the law “in an even-handed and principled manner”, the city’s head of judges pledged at a legal event on Saturday.

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li opened an appointment ceremony at the Court of Final Appeal by painting a picture of the current situation facing the judiciary.

Ma said we are “in a world now often critical of established institutions and the work they do”, adding: “Hong Kong’s courts now face more than at any other time in their history challenges which sometimes assume significant political and social dimensions.”

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There had been recent events, he said, in which the courts’ work had been debated by a polarised public. Ma reiterated that the courts’ role was to adhere to the law strictly and apply it “in an even-handed and principled manner”.

“This is saying the obvious but it seems that now more than ever the community needs to be reassured of this,” he said.

Although falling short of specifying the challenges, the chief justice’s comment came just weeks after the visit of Zhang Dejing, chairman of the National People’s Congress, who urged the government and judiciary to apply the law fairly and not to “tolerate illegal behaviour”.

In 2014, the State Council in Beijing raised concerns in Hong Kong when it issued a white paper in which it described judges as administrators with a basic political requirement to love the country.

Protests at court buildings have become increasingly common and tense recently for politically related cases, sometimes with protesters outside fiercely criticising the decisions of judicial officers.

Ma spoke of his concerns at the appointment ceremony for senior counsels – the top rank for barristers – during which public prosecutor Anna Lai Yuen-kee and barristers Richard Khaw Wei-kiang, Jose-Antonio Maurellet, and Alexander Stock took silk.

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Commenting on Ma’s speech, Alan Leong Kah-kit SC, leader of the Civic Party, said although Ma made a similar speech before during the opening ceremony of the current legal year, he said the chief justice said it with more passion this time.

Leong said Ma’s speech was timely given that more people were accusing the courts of failing to live up to their standards. He raised the ongoing trial of seven policemen accused of assaulting Occupy activist Ken Tsang Kin-chiu as an example, saying protesters had condemned the judiciary outside court.

Leong said this rarely happened before and could be a sign of diminishing public confidence in the judiciary.

University of Hong Kong principal law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming said it was worth noting “the recent events” Ma vaguely cited, though he did not want to speculate.

Before congratulating the new appointees, Ma told them: “The law is not only what you want it to be, it is there for everybody and includes a respect for other people’s rights.”