Opinions are divided over the appointment of the next chief justice, Andrew Cheung, with democrats and pro-LGBT rights groups raising questions over his past judgements. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Tuesday that Justice Cheung is to assume the position as head of the judiciary following the retirement of current Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma next January.

Legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok of the pro-democracy Civic Party told the press on Tuesday afternoon that Cheung was an experienced judge and jurist, but he had fundamental disagreements with some of his past rulings. “[W]hen he said in one of his judgments that the interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee [NPCSC] is a matter entirely for the mainland and that common law has no place in that question… I am concerned about these remarks.”

Dennis Kwok. File photo: Civic Party.

He questioned whether the public and judges were simply going to accept further interpretations of the city’s mini-constitution by Beijing: “If my worry comes true, the next interpretation of the Basic Law of the NPCSC [may] fundamentally [trample] upon the common law and human rights as protected under the Basic Law, and our freedom,” Kwok said. He added that it could amount to a huge challenge for the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy activist Sunny Cheung wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that he would not provide give direct comment on Justice Cheung’s style of work: “I believe you all have discerning eyes to tell.”

But he then listed cases overseen by Cheung, including the rejection of pro-democracy ex-lawmakers Au Nok-hin and Gary Fan’s application for an appeal against a court’s decision to unseat them. Other cases include the upholding of a decision to disqualify democrats Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching from the legislature as well as the rejection of civil unions between same-sex couples. Cheung also ruled corporate and special interest voting in the Legislative Council functional constituency election constitutional.

File photo: Hong Kong Pride Parade 2019.

Pro-LGBT rights activist group Big Love Alliance also shared a Facebook post on Justice Cheung’s past judgements against transgender marriage. “Known for his conservativeness, the appointment of Cheung as the next Chief Justice stirs up worries about LGBT rights being further undermined… In the judicial review of transgender people’s right to marry in 2010, Cheung ruled against the plaintiff and said in his judgment that Hong Kong has not yet formed a consensus in accepting transgender marriage,” they wrote.

The decision was later overruled at the Court of Final Appeal and the Marriage Ordinance at that time was declared unconstitutional.

Court of Final Appeal. File photo: inmediahk.net.

Lawyer groups approve 

The two professional regulatory bodies for Hong Kong lawyers both said they welcomed the appointment in two separate official statements on Tuesday. The Hong Kong Bar Association wrote that Cheung commanded the respect of the Bar. “The Hong Kong Bar Association is confident that Mr. Justice Cheung will capably discharge the duties of Chief Justice in accordance with the requirements of the Basic Law,” a statement read.

Meanwhile, the Law Society of Hong Kong wrote that Justice Cheung’s dedication, integrity, professionalism and leadership during his term as chief judge of the high court for seven years was widely recognised. The society also wrote in the statement that they are confident that Cheung will “[uphold] the rule of law which is of cardinal importance to Hong Kong under the principle of One Country Two Systems.”

Andrew Cheung. File Photo: GovHK.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung also wrote on Facebook that she was glad about the news and believed that the “rule of law will be enshrined, human rights and freedom will be protected, and the solemnity of One Country Two Systems and the Basic Law will be upheld” under Justice Cheung’s leadership of the Court of Final Appeal.

Nevertheless, legal scholar Eric Cheung said the public should not focus on the individual appointment of judges, as the chief justice enjoys no higher authority than other judges in handling appeal cases at Hong Kong courts, Stand News reported.

Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.