Back to school for former top judge

Overseas-education | Crystal Wu 26 Jan 2021

Stepping down as Hong Kong's second chief justice after a decade, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li is taking up a new position at his alma mater: honorary chair and professor at the University of Birmingham's Law School.

"I thank the university for this great honor. It holds special significance for me, because apart from providing me with the necessary foundation for my career in the law, I am immensely proud to be a part of this outstanding university," he said.

Ma, who became a student at Birmingham in 1974 and graduated with a bachelor of laws in 1977, said he had fond memories of his days at the university.

"Lots of things are still fresh in my mind, not least the sheer quality of the teachers. They made the study and discipline of law interesting and instilled in me a keenness that has never left," he said in a profile for the school's alumni newsletter.

"One lingering memory is of the beauty of the university; it must be one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. It is such a scenic city, with so much to explore," he said in another interview.

Born in Hong Kong, Ma spent his student years in England. Though he originally wanted to study history, he was dissuaded from doing so by his brother, who gave him the idea of pursuing law and helped enamored it to him. Birmingham became a top contender, as it "had the best reputation."

"My time at Birmingham stimulated my interest in the law and provided a professional stepping stone,' he said."To be a good barrister, you need to know the law well - ideally through three years of full-time law study."

After graduating, he was called to the bar in various places around the world, including England, Singapore and Hong Kong.

He worked for over two decades as a barrister - during which he was appointed as a Queen's Counsel - before being appointed as a judge of the court of first instance in 2001.

He then moved up to the court of appeal in 2002, and the high court's chief judge in July 2003.

In 2010, Ma was appointed chief justice of the court of final appeal. After a decade of service, he announced his intention to retire at 65 last year and stepped down frsom his position last week.

"These past 10 years have represented for me the pinnacle of my career as a lawyer," he said at his farewell sitting at the court of final appeal.

Even with his increasingly busy role within Hong Kong's judiciary, the now-retired judge has always taken time to engage with other alumni and current students from his alma mater, attending various events run by the school.

"I have always felt a deep sense of belonging to the University of Birmingham and am glad that more alumni now feel the same," he said.

In 2011, he was presented with an honorary degree of doctor of laws by the university. He also received the inaugural University of Birmingham Hong Kong medal in 2019.

Before his appointment at Birmingham, Ma also served as an honorary lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said of the appointment: "Ma has long been a proud advocate of his university and has supported Birmingham in many ways. He is a globally respected figure, a hugely successful alumnus, and I am also proud to count him as a personal friend. He will bring great expertise and wisdom to our senior academic team as he returns to Birmingham."

Birmingham Law School head Lisa Webley, who is also delighted to welcome Ma to his new position, believes the school's current students will find inspiration in Ma's contribution to justice and rule of law "that had its starting point at the University of Birmingham."

Ma is also the current president of the Holdsworth Club of the university's law faculty.

Looking ahead to a new decade and a new chapter of life, the retired chief justice said: "The University of Birmingham has developed into an institution that is respected globally and also has a significant relevance worldwide. The impact it has made is there for all to see - excellence in teaching and research, making a tangible contribution in an increasingly complex world."

"I look forward to devoting more time to the university and playing my part as best I can."

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