The ceremonial opening of the new legal year in Hong Kong this week came at a time of deep concern about the city's rule of law. More than seven months of social unrest have seen its reputation as a relatively peaceful and orderly part of the world shattered. There has been widespread disregard for the law, including violence and vandalism. It is not surprising that speeches by leaders of different branches of the legal profession focused on the impact of the protests, lamenting the violence, stressing the importance of an independent judiciary and the need to uphold the rule of law. This needed to be said.
The disturbances have placed intense pressure on the legal profession and system of justice. There have been over 7,000 arrests and more than 1,000 prosecutions so far. The caseload presents the judiciary with a huge challenge. The cases need to be tried as quickly as due process allows. Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied. But if court cases are rushed, the risk of injustice increases. And that is a risk that should not be taken.
It is good, therefore, to see that the judiciary has set up a group to consult stakeholders and to work out how best to deal with the high volume of cases and how expeditiously they can be tried. But Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Taoi-li is right to stress that fundamental legal principles cannot be compromised. Those facing trial are presumed innocent until proven guilty. All are entitled to a fair trial.
He hit back at suggestions the judiciary has been dragging its feet, pointing out that in most of the protest-related cases the prosecution has asked for more time to gather evidence and seek legal advice. Time is also needed for those facing charges to prepare their defence. The court process must be allowed to take its course.
The judiciary has come under fire for its decisions in protest cases from both sides of the political divide. The criticism is often politically motivated and driven by disagreement with the outcome of a case. Graffiti targeting a judge was recently scrawled on the wall of the High Court and entrances to two court buildings were set on fire. Such actions are deplorable and a threat to public confidence in the city's independent judiciary.
Ma sought, not for the first time, to explain the process used by judges and magistrates when deciding cases. He stressed that judges do not have a duty to "achieve a certain result in accordance with popular wishes". Their job is to apply the law freely and fairly, without being influenced by political, social or economic considerations. Their oath requires them to administer justice without fear or favour. The rule of law depends on this.
The opening of the new legal year, with its ceremonial wigs and gowns, has become a symbol of Hong Kong's enduring rule of law. The principle is one upon which the city's future rests.
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