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Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal Geoffrey Ma Tao-li delivers his last speech at the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year before his retirement due for January 2021. [PHOTO / CALVIN NG]

Hong Kong’s legal heavyweights stressed on Monday that exercising one’s rights has limits within the law, and does not justify violence.

In his last speech at the ceremonial opening of the new legal year before retiring in January 2021, Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said in the past seven months, Hong Kong has seen the rights set out in the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights much exercised, including the freedom of speech, assembly and procession.

But, it’s important to understand that enjoying these rights has limits so as not to affect adversely others’ rights and liberties in the community, he said.

“The enjoyment or insistence on one’s rights does not, for example, provide any excuse to harm other people or their property, or to display acts of violence.”

Therefore, such rights and freedoms also carry responsibilities, Ma pointed out. It’s simply not right to think that other people’s rights, or even the rights of the community as a whole, should be regarded as less important than one’s own, Ma said.

The outgoing chief justice urged everyone in the community to rightly cherish the rule of law, as it’s the foundation of a cohesive society.

“We must do all our best to preserve it and treasure it because, once damaged, this is not something from which our community can easily recover.”
In view of some attacks made against judges, the integrity and impartiality of the courts, or the soundness of the legal system, based solely on the outcome of cases, Ma reiterated that everyone is entitled to express his or her views regarding the work of the courts, but this must be on an informed basis.

When the courts deal with cases relating to recent public activities, he said the requirement of a fair trial should be firmly upheld.

Article 85 of the Basic Law states that the courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference, he noted.

Judges look only to the letter and spirit of the law, he emphasized. “Political, economic or social considerations, as opposed to legal considerations, simply do not enter into the equation.”

The seven-month-long unrest has not only wreaked havoc in Hong Kong, but also brought the city’s long-cherished rule of law into question with nearly 7,000 people having been arrested for participating in unlawful protests since June last year.

In view of the large volume of cases, Ma said the judiciary has set up a task force to look into ways to accelerate the process, including proposals to extend court hours at each level of the court.

Relevant stakeholders will be consulted on suggested measures, he said.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who also spoke at the ceremony, emphasized that the rule of law is a constitutional principle. It requires that a citizen, before committing to any course of action, should be able to know in advance the legal consequences.

“When disarray such as unchecked acts of violence and vandalism prevails, it will be rule of mob, not rule of law,” Cheng emphasized.

The Department of Justice takes seriously its constitutional role of criminal prosecutions, free from any interference, under Article 63 of the Basic Law, she said.

The department will launch a 10-year project this year, titled “Vision 2030 for Rule of Law”, to promote the proper understanding and recognition of the rule of law, Cheng said.

Melissa Kaye Pang, president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, pointed out an obvious fallacy that one can uphold the rule of law without obedience to the law.

“Obedience of the law is non-negotiable and uncompromisable,” she stressed.

“With utmost respect, civil disobedience is no license to arson, damage to citizens’ properties and injuries to persons,” she added.

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