Hong Kong’s departing chief justice offers one last defence of judicial independence at farewell sitting

Ng Kang-chung
·4-min read

Hong Kong’s outgoing chief justice, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, offered his clearest views on the city’s rule of law and judicial independence on Wednesday in a ceremonial farewell sitting to say goodbye to the legal profession and the public.

Donning his judicial robes for the last time, Ma emphasised in his remarks at the ceremony that the rule of law was about recognising and enforcing “human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

“It is not just about being conducive to business and investment,” he added. “Nor is it only about law and order.”

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The concept of an independent judiciary, meanwhile, “is not related to politics”, he said.

“That is why I have always spoken out against the politicisation of the judiciary and of the work of the courts,” Ma said. “The independence of judiciary means, in essence, the responsibility and duty imposed on the courts to adjudicate on the law and legal disputes fairly, evenly and strictly in accordance with legal principle and the spirit of the law”.

Ma’s pointed comments came amid brewing calls by the city’s pro-Beijing camp for reforms to Hong Kong’s judiciary, with one heavyweight from the bloc, Tam Yiu-chung, urging courts to make “down-to-earth” rulings that suited the prevailing situation in society. Tam has also warned that the judiciary should not misinterpret “judicial independence” as “an independent judicial kingdom”.

Pro-Beijing figure Tam Yiu-chung, one of the voices calling for reforms of Hong Kong’s judiciary. Photo: Handout
Pro-Beijing figure Tam Yiu-chung, one of the voices calling for reforms of Hong Kong’s judiciary. Photo: Handout

At Wednesday’s farewell sitting, the city’s second chief justice since the 1997 handover gave thanks for the support he had received during his career. The one-hour event, held at the Court of Final Appeal – Hong Kong’s highest legal institution – was attended by lawyers, judges and government officials.

Ma reserved about a third of his address for his views on the rule of law, the judicial independence, and the role and responsibilities of judges.

“They are not in any way strange concepts that have been transplanted randomly to apply in Hong Kong. They are concepts required by, protected by and to be enforced under the very constitutional document that governs Hong Kong,” Ma said, referring to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

He also said he remained “proud” of the city’s judges, praising them for having “always discharged their responsibilities consistently and conscientiously, without regard to the type or level of criticism that may be directed against them” – no matter the prevailing political atmosphere.

Judicial reforms should not be based on unhappiness over rulings, Geoffrey Ma warns

Ma also praised the contributions of overseas non-permanent judges at the Court of Final Appeal.

“It is important when discussing the role of the overseas non-permanent judges not to allow politics to cloud the analysis,” Ma said. “Their presence on Hong Kong’s highest court reflects the fact, as stipulated by the Basic Law, that Hong Kong is a common law jurisdiction and, more important, a jurisdiction that is founded on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.”

Ma is retiring after some 10 years in the post, and will be succeeded by his Court of Final Appeal colleague Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, 58. Cheung was appointed a permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal in 2018.

Ma on Wednesday said he had “every confidence” in his successor.

“My only advice to him is always to be guided by your principles, for it is these principles that will see you and the community through all seasons,” he said.

Justice Andrew Cheung, who will succeed Geoffrey Ma as chief justice. Photo: May Tse
Justice Andrew Cheung, who will succeed Geoffrey Ma as chief justice. Photo: May Tse

Ma’s parting shot came a day after he met the press to sum up his years of service on Tuesday. In that event, he also warned that judicial reform should not be based on dissatisfaction with court rulings, while also rejecting any notion of pressure from the local or central governments influencing decisions during his tenure.

Ma announced his retirement in 2019, saying he would like to spend more time with family, who, he said in Wednesday’s speech, “have made the happy times happier, and even the not-so-happy times fine”.

Among the guests attending the farewell sitting were Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Legislative Council president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan and former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang.

Representatives of the Law Society, the Bar Association and the administration also gave speeches to pay tribute to Ma and his achievements during the farewell sitting.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah said she would sum up Ma in one word – “kind” – while also praising his “remarkable” patience. Law Society president Melissa Pang joked about Ma’s waistline, calling him a “weighty figure”, but said he seemed to have been successfully keeping the pounds off of late.

Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes, meanwhile, commended Ma for making the Court of Final Appeal an internationally respected institution.

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