Hong Kong pro-Beijing lawmakers have expressed disappointment with a statement from the chief justice on confidence in the judiciary, saying it did not address criticisms over protest-related judgements.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma issued a statement on Wednesday responding to controversies involving the magistrates’ courts’ decisions on conviction, acquittal and bail, without identifying the disputed cases.
Ma wrote there is an established appeal process to follow up on instances when fundamental legal principles are breached. He also said the transparency of the judiciary enables the community to observe the process in full.
Speaking at the legislature, DAB lawmakers Holden Chow and Elizabeth Quat told reporters they thought the statement merely reiterated basic legal principles without addressing public concerns over certain judgements.
“Will simply repeating basic legal principles clear public concerns over the judiciary’s impartiality?” Chow said. “The statement does not address what measures the judiciary should take to ensure the correct application of legal principles in their adjudication.”
Chow said some defendants fled after being released on bail, which gave the public the impression of bias among judges and magistrates. He suggested establishing a sentencing commission.
Quat, on the other hand, said the statement did not directly respond to her criticisms of the judiciary but she was delighted Ma agreed that judges could stand to face substantiated criticisms.
Last month, the legislator wrote a letter to Ma requesting Magistrate Stanley Ho be removed from protests-related cases. She accused Ho of being biased towards pro-democracy activists in eight recent judgements.
Ho acquitted District Councillor Jocelyn Chau of the charge of assaulting a police officer in August, saying the two officers’ testimonies were unreliable.
More than 2,200 protests-related cases have been brought to court following citywide pro-democracy protests, which erupted last June over an ill-fated extradition bill. Rioting, unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons were among the top three charges.
Judge Kwok Wai-kin aired sympathy towards an attacker who slashed three people in Tseung Kwan O and he compared pro-democracy protesters to “terrorists” in his ruling, prompting public criticism over partiality. Justice Ma later warned judges against expressing “unwarranted or unnecessary political views.”
In Ma’s latest statement, he wrote that the judiciary should be free from interference and partiality, and judicial power should be exercised without fear or favour.
“This includes in particular being influenced by political considerations. Put simply, a judge must not be influenced by any political bias of whatever persuasion,” he wrote.
Ma added that criticisms can be justifiably made where courts or judges breach fundamental principles: “But it is crucial that such criticisms are both informed and supported with proper grounds and reasons. The reason for this is that such criticisms are likely to contain extremely serious allegations and they should not be lightly made.”
He also wrote that the presumption that bail should be granted is stated in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights and is consistent with the presumption of innocence, which is fundamental to the concept of justice and fairness.
Separately, the Law Society of Hong Kong issued an earlier public statement on Tuesday addressing recent controversies over court judgements.
The legal body urged the public to respect judicial independence and said any unfair or unfounded attacks on the judiciary owing to political views could not be tolerated: “[W]e strongly condemn all attempts to undermine respect for judicial integrity and independence,” it wrote.
Contrary to top judges’ remarks in the past, Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters earlier this month that Hong Kong has an “executive-led” system of governance without the separation of powers.
Beijing agencies backed Lam and said Hong Kong is, in principle, “executive-led.” However, the Hong Kong Bar Association said the leader’s claim was inconsistent with the existing constitutional and legal framework of the city.