Former top judge returns to practice as arbitrator

Top News | Michael Shum and Maisy Mok 22 Apr 2021

Retired chief justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li will serve as an international arbitrator in Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

Ma, 65, retired in January but his post-retirement career came to light when he was listed as an arbitrator on the website of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre.

The three regions are listed as his locations of practice and his specialty would be arbitration and mediation.

Ma confirmed that he would be an arbitrator in the three regions and said he is trying to keep up with the law after his retirement from the judiciary.

It is understood that he will be a door tenant at Temple Chambers in Hong Kong - where he was the head of chambers prior to his judicial appointment in 2000 - not as a barrister but as an arbitrator, according to Sing Tao Daily, sister paper of The Standard.

Leader of the Temple Chambers Paul Shieh Wing-tai refused to comment.

Brick Court Chambers in Britain also announced the former top judge will be a door tenant as arbitrator, while sources from the legal sector said Ma is using David Chong Law Corp as his contact address in Singapore.

According to local laws, judges from the District Court, High Court and Court of Final Appeal are not allowed to practice as a barrister or senior counsel after retirement, but can still take up work as an arbitrator. A senior counsel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ma is more reputable than other retired judges as he was the chief justice. He could earn millions doing arbitration work - but there could be conflict of interest.

But Grenville Cross, former director of public prosecutions in Hong Kong, said there was a clear precedent for retired judges to become arbitrators although some people might criticize Ma's decision.

"Ma is still relatively young and he still has much to offer the legal world. If he still feels able to accept a new challenge, it would be a waste of his talents to simply spend the rest of his days doing nothing," Cross said.

"If he turns out to be a good international arbitrator, as seems likely, this will clearly be of benefit to everyone in need of arbitration."

Cross also disagreed that Ma returned to private practice for cash as he would have a large judicial pension.

On concerns over conflict of interest, Cross said Ma must be subject to a sanitization period and he will not actually be doing any work until it is over.

Barrister Athena Kung Ching-yee called on the government to extend the sanitization period for retired chief justices before allowing them to work again in or out of Hong Kong "or else, the powerful chief justice might make biased decisions when presiding over a case or managing the judicial system for the sake of personal benefits after their retirement."

Ma stepped down from his position as chief justice in January and was succeeded by Andrew Cheung Kui-nung.

Ma also told the press before his retirement that he will not be taking up the post of a nonpermanent judge at the Court of Final Appeal and would retire from the judiciary as planned.

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