Andrew Cheung was sworn in as Hong Kong’s chief justice on Monday, replacing Geoffrey Ma following his retirement last Friday.
In his inaugural speech to open the legal year, Cheung vowed to review the courts complaints mechanisms to “enhance transparency and accountability” as he criticised attacks on the judiciary. He spoke of the importance of impartial, independent and open courts to ensure “public and business confidence” in the system.
“The Judiciary must be and must remain an independent and impartial judiciary… An independent judiciary is essential to the rule of law in Hong Kong and the due administration of justice,” Cheung said at the opening of the legal year.
The new chief justice also said the judiciary will “continue to strengthen our exchanges with the judiciaries and judges in other common law jurisdictions as well as our counterparts on the Mainland.”
“Comments and criticisms, sometimes extreme and harsh ones, are unavoidable. Whilst the freedom of speech of everyone in society must be fully respected, there must not be any attempt to exert improper pressure on the judges in the discharge of their judicial functions… [I]t has to be stressed that attempts to exert undue pressure on our judges by means such as threats of violence or doxxing are as futile as they are reprehensible.”
Since the city-wide pro-democracy protests and unrest in 2019, judges have faced threats and criticism over their judgements. Last year, state-backed media outlets Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po published editorials lambasting judges deemed to have ruled in favour of protesters while security law judge Victor So has reportedly received death threats.
At his swearing in ceremony earlier on Monday, Cheung took his oath to uphold the Basic Law and bear allegiance to the Hong Kong government.
Cheung had been formally appointed as Ma’s successor in June. At the time, Chief Executive Carrie Lam praised Cheung’s “exceptional qualities, distinguished leadership and vision,” as well as his reputation within the judiciary.
During his last press conference as Chief Justice last Wednesday, Ma said he had “every confidence” in Cheung’s ability to serve as head of the city’s judiciary. “I hope that everyone in the community will support the Chief Justice. 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,” the former chief justice said.
Before his appointment on Monday, Cheung had been serving as a permanent judge on the bench of Hong Kong’s highest court since October 2018.
First local law school graduate
Cheung becomes the head of the judiciary amid growing fears of increased political pressure on the city’s judiciary after Beijing passed the broad-ranging national security law last June. He takes the reins months after the city’s leader declared that Hong Kong had “no separation of powers.”
Last month, Cheung served as one of the three designated national security judges who granted leave to appeal Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai ‘s bail after he was charged with colluding with foreign forces under the security law. The court remanded Lai in custody pending a hearing set for February.
Before joining the city’s highest court as a permanent judge, Cheung had served as chief judge of the high court for seven years. Prior to becoming a district judge in 2001, Cheung worked as a barrister in private practice for 15 years.
In 2016, he upheld a lower court’s decision confirming the disqualifications of elected pro-democracy lawmakers Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching. The pair had refused to solemnly take their oaths as Legislative Council members.
In his decision, the now-Chief Justice ruled that Hong Kong courts had no jurisdiction to decide whether an interpretation by Beijing of the city’s governing law was valid, as the mainland civil law system operated separately from Hong Kong’s common law system.
“The view of a common law lawyer, untrained in the civil law system, particularly the civil law system practised on the Mainland, is, with respect, simply quite irrelevant,” Cheung wrote in his judgement. Article 158 of the Basic Law grants Beijing the ultimate power of legal interpretation.
Serving as Hong Kong’s third Chief Justice since the handover, the 59-year-old becomes the first Chief Justice to have graduated from a local law school, having completed his undergraduate and qualifying law studies at the University of Hong Kong. He also holds a Masters of Laws from Harvard University.
Cheung is a Christian and is married with three children.