Order and security is one of the defining aspects of a rule of law society. It is a pre-condition for the realisation of the rights and freedoms that the rule of law seeks to advance. Hong Kong has always been a peaceful and safe city. However, the recent public order events involving acts of violence in scattered locations are threatening to damage this very important pillar of order and security of our society. There is no doubt that the city has the strength and capability to resolve the current difficulties and overcome the challenges in due course, but it needs her people’s support in the process.
As members of the legal profession, our role is to promote the proper understanding of the rule of law and to stand up for it whenever there are attempts to undermine it or unfairly criticise it. A recent example of the Law Society defending the independence of the judiciary related to some public comments reported in the media criticising the leniency of judges in handling the protest-related cases and demanding the resignation of the Chief Justice. The task of the courts is to adjudicate impartially on the legal and factual issues involved in the particular case according to the law, whatever the nature of the controversy and whoever the parties may be. Where a court has ruled on the legal issues in a particular way at first instance, a party dissatisfied with the court's judgment has the avenue of appeal. On 13 September, the Law Society issued a public statement condemning unfounded comments that judicial decisions were made or influenced by political considerations, which are unjustified and damaging to our legal system, and to Hong Kong as a whole.
As legal practitioners, we constantly interact with the judicial system. We therefore also have an important role in providing constructive feedback on how to make it an even better system, taking into account the changing demands and needs of society.
The demands on judges and judicial officers have been heavy with the increasing caseload. Further, the current system imposes various duties on many office holders who have to spend their days in court, attend to administrative duties, sit on internal and external working parties, and somehow find sufficient time to write their judgments. There is an obvious need to strengthen the establishment. Based on the Judiciary’s annual reports, for criminal cases: in the District Court, from first appearance of defendants to hearing, the waiting time was 187 days in 2018, compared to 118 days in 2016 (an increase of 59 percent); in the Magistrates’ Court, from plea to date of trial, the waiting time was 57 days for defendants in custody in 2018, compared to 41 days in 2016 (an increase of 39 percent).
The need to improve the judicial manpower situation, that directly impacts the administration of justice, is intensified with the recent public order events which resulted in a high number of arrests, possibly leading to an increasing number of cases before court and longer waiting time. Justice delayed is justice denied. Taking into account the pressure of an increasing caseload, it may be advisable to pursue active recruitment measures to ensure that there is sufficient suitable manpower to deliver justice in an efficient and timely manner.
Many law firms support the Judiciary by permitting their solicitors to clear their diaries so they can accept temporary appointments as Deputy District Court Judges or as Masters in the High Court. Senior solicitors should be regarded as suitable candidates for appointment as Recorders or Deputy Judges in the High Court. The Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission should widen its search and should actively consider making such appointments so that potential candidates can receive experience sitting as Recorders and as Deputy Judges in the High Court and be assessed on capability as well as suitability.
Further, consideration must also be given to improving the pay and working environment of Hong Kong judges. The provision of more support staff and more time to write judgments and prepare for hearings would improve the working environment of judges and potentially attract more lawyers to the Judiciary who possess the required and right talent.
Apart from promoting a proper understanding of the rule of law and supporting the Judiciary in strengthening its resources to administer justice efficiently, legal practitioners can also contribute to leading Hong Kong back on track by carrying on business as usual and actively participating in the international legal events taking place in Hong Kong.
The Law Society is co-hosting the 32nd LAWASIA Annual Conference with LAWASIA from 6 to 8 November 2019. It has been 12 years since the LAWASIA Conference was last held in Hong Kong in 2007. The Conference will attract participants from around the world to visit Hong Kong. No other opportunity is better than this occasion to showcase to the world the ability and determination of Hong Kong people in maintaining our hard-earned status as an international legal service hub. The LAWASIA Conference has been accredited with 14 CPD points in total. The Law Society also offers, on a first-come-first-served basis, sponsorships of 75 percent of the registration fee to trainee solicitors and solicitors admitted for five years or less, and sponsorships of 60 percent of the registration fee to solicitors admitted for more than five years and registered foreign lawyers. Registration details are on the Conference website at https://www.lawasia.asn.au/32nd-lawasia-conference-2019.
Unity is strength. Let us unite our effort and inject renewed strength to support Hong Kong to sail through the stormy waters.