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Chief justice hits back at criticism of the courts

2020-01-13 HKT 17:38
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  • Chief justice hits back at criticism of the courts
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma has fended off criticism that the courts are moving too slowly in dealing with cases relating to the ongoing protests, as he also rebuked "attacks" on the judiciary from various quarters and warned that violence can in no way be justified.

Delivering his last speech to mark the ceremonial opening of the new legal year, Ma who retires soon, noted that seven months of unrest have affected everyone in society, saying during this time the judiciary has been faced with many questions and comments.

He said while everyone is entitled to express their views, some remarks have "bordered on the unacceptable" and "distort an objective and proper picture of the law and the legal system."

"When attacks are made against the integrity and impartiality of the courts, or against the soundness of the legal system, or personal and highly offensive attacks are made against judges based solely on the outcome of cases, something needs to be said to inform the community about the operation of the law," he told his audience of judges and lawyers at City Hall.

The top judge also came down heavily against the violence that has occurred at some protests. "The enjoyment or insistence on one's rights does not, for example, provide any excuse to harm other people or their property, or to display acts of violence."

Ma hit back at criticism over apparent delays in handling cases related to the protests, saying that people need to bear in mind that ensuring a defendant gets a fair trial is the fundamental requirement.

"In the vast majority – and I stress the words "vast majority" – of cases related to recent events when they first go before the courts after arrests have been made and charges have been laid, the prosecution will request for time (often amounting to several weeks if not more) in order to gather evidence, obtain legal advice from the Department of Justice as to the appropriateness of the charge laid and then to decide the appropriate level of court to try the charge," he said.

He also appeared to address calls from pro-Beijing figures for speedy prosecutions of protesters, with some in the camp calling for 24-hour courts to handle the large number of cases.

"The vast majority of cases are at this moment simply not ready for trial. That said, in order to cope with the expected high volume of cases, the judiciary has made plans to deal with such cases (at whatever level of court) expeditiously. A task group has been set up for some time now to look into how best and how expeditiously our courts can cope with these cases," he said.

"These include proposals to sit extended hours. I must, however, emphasise that while expedition is desirable and we will do our best to achieve this, it is important to bear in mind the overall importance of a fair trial."

The SAR's courts have recently come under fire from government and police supporters, as well as pro-Beijing media outlets, for releasing many of those charged over protests on bail. Critics say this allows those charged to join future protests as well. In his speech, Ma explained in his speech why bail in many cases should be expected.

"Bail is normally to be granted unless some exceptions apply such as the risk of flight or the risk of witness tampering. This is entirely consistent with the presumption of innocence. The approach of the courts is not to presume an accused guilty; constitutional principles mandate the opposite."

The chief justice also pointed out that judges do not have a duty to achieve results that are in accordance with popular wishes, "whether they be majority or minority wishes".

"Judges look only to the letter of the law and to the spirit of the law, and nothing else. Political, economic or social considerations, as opposed to legal considerations, simply do not enter into the equation."

He added that the judiciary must be able to exercise its power independently, and that nobody is above the law.

"The task of the courts is to resolve legal disputes in accordance with the law. Everyone is subject to the law, no one is above it. The guarantee and requirement of equality, which is also clearly spelt out in the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights, ensures that everyone, high or low, public body or citizen, are subject to the law and answerable to it. There are no exceptions."