It has been heartwarming to see so many tributes to the splendour of Hong Kong’s legal system, following the news that two UK judges are withdrawing from their roles as occasional participants in the proceedings of our Court of Final Appeal.

Lord Robert Reed and Lord Patrick Hodge. Photo: UK Supreme court.

Other overseas judges are apparently still up for this gig. More attention is needed in some places to the difference between political impartiality and political ignorance, I think. Or these overseas people could try looking at the detailed working of the system which they adorn and endorse.

An example: this week Leung Kwok-hung – once my local Legislative Councillor – appeared in a magistrates court and was convicted of an offence committed in 2016. This Dickensian legal process culminated in a punishment of 14 days in prison. A mountain has laboured to bring forth a mouse.

This will be of little concern to Leung, who is already serving a jail term for being in Victoria Park at the wrong time, and if he was not already in prison would be waiting in custody for his trial for participating in a primary for an election which was cancelled.

Thirty-four primary participants are still consuming the correctional M & Ms, even though the primary took place in 2020 and the arrests in January last year.

Leung Kwok-hung was accused of snatching a folder from then undersecretary for development Eric Ma in 2016. Photo: LegCo screenshot.

Leung’s more than six-year wait for a decision is probably some sort of record. Do not be deceived by excuses like the 2019 unrest or the subsequent Covid outbreak. Leung was originally prosecuted in a magistrates court soon after the offence – disorder in the Legislative Council – and he was acquitted.

There matters rested until 2020, when there seems to have been a change in prosecutorial policy to something along the lines of identifying government critics and throwing anything at them that will stick. The Department of Justice (sic) appealed the acquittal. The matter then percolated up the system to the Court of Final Appeal, which sent it back to the magistrate with some legal notes.

It must seem to anyone with a sense of proportion that this was a shocking waste of time and money for everyone concerned. Leung is hardly a threat to order in the legislature now that we have an improved electoral system through which members are effectively chosen by the government. I suppose with the usual discount he will serve ten days.

I note with interest that one of our now resigned British judges was on the panel which considered Leung’s case and seems to have been somewhat resistant to arguments based on the right to freedom of speech.

Another example: delving into the lower reaches of the legal system we can consider the case of Samuel Bickett. Bickett was walking through an MTR pedestrian tunnel when he came across two people beating up a kid. It appears from the video, quite a lot of which has appeared on the internet, that Bickett and other people commented orally on this spectacle, in the midst of which the kid wriggled free and escaped, followed by his attacker.

The attacker, who turned out to be an off-duty cop, then returned and the sequel can be viewed here: 

Does that look to you like a plainclothes cop being interrupted in the course of an arrest by a man trying to steal his baton? That is what the magistrate made of it.

Bickett appealed in vain to a High Court judge who seems to have supposed that the purpose of the proceedings was to exonerate the policeman. Having served his sentence he was then promptly deported. We have ways of making you wish you had pleaded guilty.

Finally we can consider the plight of two people who were arrested last month on sedition charges. The law on media reports on pending court cases is quite clear and in Hong Kong has been unenforced for so long that it is now followed only by media who think the authorities might seize any chance to give them a hard time.

You must not print, broadcast or whatever, anything which implies that the arrested person is guilty or innocent of the charges levelled. This means that you must also not state or imply that the luckless accused is also guilty of other offences. This is the sin for which, when I was very young, the editor of the Daily Mail was actually jailed.

Hong Kong judges. File photo: GovHK.

The day after our sedition suspects were arrested we were treated to what I suppose might be considered in contempt of court circles the full monty: the full names, ages and occupations of the two arrestees, followed by accusations, attributed to an official police briefing, that the pair were (besides printing seditious material, the offence charged) recruiting an army to violently rebel against Chinese rule in Hong Kong.

Clearly the inaptly named Department of Justice does not see its role as including any protection for the prospect of a fair trial for arrested people. We are transitioning to a mainland-style system in which everyone who is arrested is guilty. The role of the court is to read the confession and pass sentence.

I don’t know what overseas judges make of all this. Perhaps they don’t read the Hong Kong newspapers. But if I was one of them I would not wish to touch the Hong Kong legal system with a barge pole.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.