Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said the judiciary has formed a task group to look into how Hong Kong courts could best and expeditiously deal with the huge volume of cases related to the months-long protest movement.
In his remarks at a ceremony opening the legal year 2020 on Monday, Hong Kong’s top judge took exception to criticism that courts have been sluggish in handling such cases, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
Ma said he is “aware of the volume of cases that are before the courts relating to the events of the past seven months”.
Since the protests began in June last year, around 7,000 protesters have been arrested for various offenses such as unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons, and rioting.
But Ma noted that “in the vast majority of cases, the prosecution will request for time to gather evidence and to obtain advice on the appropriate charges to lay in the desired level of court”.
The judiciary “has made plans to deal with such cases [at whatever level of court] expeditiously” and 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”, Ma said, adding that relevant stakeholders will be “consulted on suggested measures”, including proposals to “sit extended hours”.
He stressed, however, that while quick action on the cases is desirable, “it is important to bear in mind the overall importance of a fair trial”.
This was the last time for him to deliver a speech at the annual ceremony as he will retire in January next year when he turns 65.
Ma said many views have been expressed about the judiciary in the handling of protest-related cases.
“A lot of these have been fair, but unfortunately, some have proceeded on misconceptions and misunderstandings, and distort an objective and proper picture of the law and the legal system. Some have even bordered on the unacceptable,” he said.
“I have said on a number of occasions that everyone is entitled to express their views regarding the work of the courts and one cannot, of course, expect approval of the result in every case. However, 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.”
Ma said the rights set out in the Basic Law and Bill of Rights include “the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration”, and that these freedoms have been seen in the past seven months.
“But it is important to understand that the enjoyment of these rights has limits so as not to affect adversely to an unacceptable level the enjoyment by other members of the community of their rights and liberties,” he said.
“The enjoyment of rights and freedoms also carries with it responsibilities and it is simply not right to think that other people’s rights – or even the rights of the community as a whole – should somehow be regarded as less important than one’s own.”
Ma said judges “do not have the duty to achieve a certain result in accordance with popular wishes, whether they be majority or minority wishes” but “have to ensure that a fair trial takes place and to adhere strictly to the requirements of the law”.
In discharging their responsibilities, judges “look only to the letter of the law and to the spirit of the law, and nothing else”, he said, adding that political, economic or social issues are left out of consideration.
At the end of his speech, Ma appealed to all people in Hong Kong to cherish and protect the rule of law, noting that “this is not something from which our community can easily recover” once damaged.
Asked by media after the ceremony whether an independent commission of inquiry should be set up to look into police action during the protests, Ma said the matter is not something considered by the judiciary as it is a political issue. He also said he cannot directly or indirectly appoint a judge for such a body.
He said that while there have been more personal attacks on judges today, compared with the situation 10 years ago when he took office, he believes most citizens continue to uphold and respect the rule of law. He said he remains confident about Hong Kong society and its people.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday before the regular Executive Council meeting, Chief Executive Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor thanked the judiciary for planning different measures to speed up the handling of protest cases, adding that the executive department is always ready to provide the needed resources.
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