Hong Kong’s chief justice has defended the length of time it has taken the judiciary to hold trials for 47 opposition activists arrested in January last year, saying the courts should not sidestep necessary procedural steps “for the sake of having a speedy trial”. The group, an assortment of pro-democracy figures and social activists, held pre-election primaries in July 2020 that were later declared illegal under the national security law . Thirty-three of them have been held behind bars by national security judges since January last year. “After all you want to have a trial which is procedurally fair,” Chief Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nang told the media on Monday, after attending the opening of the new judicial year in which he once again defended the city’s judicial independence, dismissing those who had cast what he described as “unsubstantiated doubts” over it. “Judicial independence in Hong Kong exists as a fact,” he said in his speech. “Criticisms of court decisions which are made without first ascertaining the facts in a case or reading and understanding the reasons for the court’s decision are as meaningless as they are hollow. So is any unsubstantiated doubt over the court’s independence.” At a media session after the ceremony, Cheung was repeatedly grilled over the stringent bail conditions and the year-long delay of the trial of the 47 activists. Without referring to a particular case, the chief justice said it took time for procedural steps to be done before cases involving multiple defendants represented by different lawyers could reach the court. These included such matters as legal aid applications, evidence consolidation and document translation. “These are not steps that we can sidestep in order to have a speedy trial for the sake of having a speedy trial,” he said. He conceded that the threshold of granting bail was “high” as set out clearly in the national security law, and that the Court of Final Appeal already gave a ruling on certain provisions. Lower courts had to follow its principles to ensure the “procedural safeguards” which he regarded as a characteristic of the common law, he said. The top court last month confirmed that the stricter standard for granting bail to national security suspects also applied to those charged under other laws if appropriate. New Hong Kong Bar Association chief draws line in sand on political issues In his speech at the ceremony, Cheung highlighted a special arrangement, under Article 44 of the Beijing-decreed law, which granted Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor the power to select judges to oversee national security cases. “It is of course not my role as head of the judiciary to make extrajudicial comments on the law or its operation,” he said. “However, it is conducive to public confidence in our judicial system to assure the community that, from the judiciary’s perspective, there is no question of the impartiality of our courts being affected by this special arrangement.” The cases assigned to the designated judges were also chosen by the judiciary instead of the administration, he added, with appointees being subject to their oath of office. “This means that no political or other personal considerations of the judge can be entertained in the judicial decision-making process,” he said. The issue of selection of judges and judicial independence had come under criticism over the past year, with at least five on the bench receiving threatening letters in the past three months after handling cases related to the 2019 social unrest and the national security law. Cheung, who previously condemned a rising tide of attacks on judges over politically charged court cases in the same occasion last year, also said that such attempts were “completely futile and pointless” and would not affect the work of the courts. He said that “attempts to intimate” or “exert improper pressure” on judges were on the rise, condemning them as “a direct affront to the rule of law and judicial independence”. The chief justice also revealed that a new edition of the Guide to Judicial Conduct, first published in 2004, was now being finalised after he accepted the report of the working party set up last March. He hoped the new edition would continue to assist judges to maintain the highest standards of judicial conduct and give the public a better understanding of their work. Speaking also at the opening of the new legal year, the new chair of the city’s Bar Association, Victor Dawes, pledged that his professional regulatory body for barristers would raise issues concerning the rule of law without political considerations. “If barristers are seen as ‘politicians in wigs’, public confidence in the Bar and the role we play in the administration of justice will diminish,” Dawes, who was elected unopposed last week, said in his first public speech. “One is not suggesting that members of the Bar cannot get involved in politics, but the role of the association itself is a different story.” Has Hong Kong Bar Association chairman been left with a poisoned chalice? A commercial law specialist, Dawes had earlier drawn a line in the sand on political issues after he and two other low-profile barristers took over the leadership reins of the outspoken legal body which had been a target of pro-Beijing media. His predecessor Paul Harris, who was made a thorn in the central government’s side after he called for amendments to the Beijing-decreed national security law, had become the first chairman – at least in recent times – to be deprived of the opportunity to deliver a speech at the opening ceremony of the legal year. The judiciary had postponed the event until after the Bar Association’s leadership transition “in light of the latest health situation”.