Hong Kong’s top judge dismissed concerns on Monday that the courts face pressure from outside sources and said that judges will treat all cases in the same way, as the territory witnessed a series of legal controversies arising out of political disputes in recent months.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li made the comments at a ceremony to mark the start of the legal year. He stopped short of directly referring to Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law in response to the legislature’s oath row, but noted that some “important cases in public law” in the past year sparked public debate.
Last November, the High Court ousted two localist lawmakers from the legislature, following a legal challenge by the Hong Kong government and Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law that set out the legal requirements of oath-taking. The disqualified lawmakers’ appeal to the Court of Final Appeal – headed by Ma – is pending.
In the controversial judgment, the Court of Appeal held that Beijing’s rulings have a retroactive effect and that Hong Kong’s lawyers are not qualified to evaluate rulings made in a different legal system.
Despite heavy criticism of the court’s view from legal professionals and the public, Ma said that the courts deal with high-profile cases in “precisely the same way as any other case: strictly in accordance with the law and legal principle.”
“In highly charged or high profile cases, all parties are treated in exactly the same way by the courts as in any other type of case. There is no added value or distinctions,” said Ma.
He dismissed concerns that the city’s judges face pressure from outside sources, as judges are independent and handle cases “strictly and only in accordance with the law and the spirit of the law.”
Rather, Ma said, the pressure judges face comes from their heavy workload and the expectation to “come up with the right outcome” such as by finding a “just and proper balance between legitimate interests” in public law cases.
Ma also noted that the shortage of judges remains a persistent issue, but said the quality of the judges would not be compromised: “I can assure everyone in the community that each of them will continue to discharge without compromise their constitutional duty and responsibilities.”
“It remains the case that, speaking as the head of the Judiciary, I would rather there be a shortage of judges rather than compromise on quality.”
Rule of law
Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen also denied that Beijing’s interpretation had any impact on the rule of law in Hong Kong.
He commended the judges’ professionalism in handling the government’s legal challenges against lawmakers following Beijing’s ruling, commenting that the city’s rule of law “does and will remain well and alive after the interpretation.”
However, Yuen added a word of caution. “May I also venture to suggest that matters that can be properly handled within Hong Kong’s legal or judicial system should be left to be dealt with at the Hong Kong level as much as possible.”
Emphasising that his suggestion was not meant as disrespect to Beijing’s authority, Yuen said: “Such an approach… is the best way to demonstrate that the ‘one country, two systems’ policy does work robustly and successfully.”
Yuen came under fire after he and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying filed judicial review challenges against six pro-democracy lawmakers, including the two who were ousted. Law professor Johannes Chan, legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok and other pro-democracy lawmakers have called on Yuen to resign for failing to defend judicial independence.