Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday denied any suggestion she was trying to influence the judiciary, following reports she met with the city’s top judge ahead of a bail hearing for detained media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor insisted it was her duty to periodically touch base with the chief justice on administrative issues facing the city’s legal system, as she reiterated her commitment to judicial independence.
“None of my meetings with the current [chief justice] or former [chief justice] touched upon cases. This is not the subject of our conversation at all,” she told Tuesday’s weekly briefing with the press.
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“I have to categorically make this statement. As the chief executive of Hong Kong, I am obliged to uphold the independence of the judiciary.”
As the head of not only her administration but Hong Kong as a whole, it was incumbent on her to ensure the smooth operation of the judiciary, she added.
On that basis, she said she would meet the chief justice every now and then to hear issues the judiciary was encountering, ranging from staffing to resource allocation.
“So this is only normal and I would advise against any reading into ... [a] proper meeting between the [chief executive] and [chief justice] as intervention of judicial independence,” she cautioned.
On Monday, the Court of Final Appeal, led by newly appointed Chief Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, convened to hear bail proceedings for Lai, the boss of Next Digital, which owns the Apple Daily tabloid-style paper.
Currently in detention, Lai has been charged, alongside other offences, with foreign collusion under the Beijing-imposed national security law which took effect last June.
The Department of Justice has launched an appeal – with profound implications for defendants charged under the security law – arguing that a lower court had previously erred in bailing Lai under the legislation, which sets a higher threshold for granting temporary release.
The top court has reserved judgment after hearing legal arguments from both sides on Monday, and will hand down its decision later.
But according to media reports that emerged before the hearing, Lam had met the chief justice last Thursday.
A spokesman for the judiciary said the chief justice would hold exchanges with the city’s leader from time to time to discuss matters relating to manpower, resources, court facilities and judge appointments.
“Pursuant to the principle of judicial independence, the chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal shall not discuss individual cases tried by the court,” he said.
Principal law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming from the University of Hong Kong said such meetings over administrative matters would be unavoidable, although authorities could do more to maintain public confidence.
“There should be more transparency. For example, was there a third person at the scene when the meeting took place?” he said.
Senior Counsel Ronny Tong Ka-wah said there was no law preventing the chief executive and chief justice from meeting and, in fact, the top judge sometimes got invited to official events held by the government.
“I don’t think they should be barred from meeting each other,” he said.
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