Keep politics out of court, chief justice warns

Top News | Erin Chan 26 May 2020

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said judges should refrain from expressing unwarranted or unnecessary political views that could risk compromising the appearance of impartiality of the courts.

Ma was singling out District Court judge Kwok Wai-kin, saying he would continue to be barred from handling political cases after he caused an uproar when he called a knife attacker "noble."

Kwok had last month expressed sympathy for 51-year-old attacker Tony Hung Chun when sentencing him to 45 months in prison for stabbing three people at a pro-democracy Lennon Wall in Tseung Kwan O last August.

The attack with a steak knife landed the victims - two women and one man aged between 24 and 35 - in hospital.

One of the women was a 26-year-old reporter, Wong, who suffered fractured ribs and an atrophied right lung as well as being left with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In his controversial judgement on April 24 Kwok described Hung as "an involuntary sacrifice and a bloodstained victim hanging by his last breath" amid the social unrest.

Kwok also noted that Hung's income from working as a tour guide had been badly affected by protesters who had been "behaving like terrorists."

And Kwok, who said later that politics did not play a role in the sentencing, also remarked that Hung would not have committed such a serious offense if it were not for the social unrest.

In making the rare rebuke in a public statement, Ma said judges must not be biased or "reasonably perceived to be biased" for or against any person or cause.

"For this reason they must refrain from unnecessarily expressing in public, including in their judgments, any views on matters that are controversial in society or may come before the courts for adjudication," he said. "This is particularly so with political views of whatever nature ...

"When the resolution of an issue in a court case necessitates the expressing of a view by the court on a matter of political controversy, [the] view must be measured and go no more than is reasonably necessary to dispose of the issue at hand."

A failure to abide by these principles would threaten public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, Ma added.

"A judge or judicial officer who expresses in public unwarranted or unnecessary political views risks compromising the appearance of impartiality and ability to hear any cases in which one's political stance may reasonably be regarded as relevant."

And Ma said Kwok's words in his judgment had stirred controversy.

"There is a risk that some reasonable, fair-minded and well-informed people could reasonably take the view that the aforesaid principles may have been compromised in that a wrong perception was given," the chief justice said.

He also said he had reminded Kwok of the importance of upholding the principles, and Kwok had agreed with him.

So Kwok should not deal with any case involving a similar political context for the time being, Ma added.

He also said the administration of justice by an independent and impartial judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law of Hong Kong.

"Judges have a responsibility under the Basic Law to exercise independent judicial power by adjudicating on cases fairly and impartially, without fear or favor," he said.

Ma also said there was a risk that some people may have perceived Kwok's comments in court to be biased.

Hong Kong has been embroiled in social unrest since last June that stemmed from the now-withdrawn extradition bill and later shifted into a general anti-government protest movement.

The protest movement saw 8,001 people arrested between last June and April 15 this year, with 1,365 people prosecuted and 556 people charged with rioting, according to police.

So it was that on April 27 a case involving protest action that Kwok had been slated to handle was removed from his docket.

The judiciary explained this course of action had been taken following Kwok's judgment in Hung's case.

And next day three cases with a similar political context were also taken from Kwok and assigned to chief district judge Justin Ko King-sau instead.

Ma announced his retirement as the chief justice in November, and he will step down on January 11 next year at the age of 65 to be replaced by Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung.

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