Judges must not be influenced by political bias, whether actual or perceived, when handling court cases, said the chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, in a statement released on Wednesday. Ma emphasized that it is the law that always governs the determination and handling of any case, without extraneous factors being considered. This, undoubtedly, is the ideal scenario in terms of administering justice. Unfortunately, reality sometimes tells a different story.
Ma’s latest statement is believed to be a response to public complaints that some judges and magistrates have handled certain kinds of offenders with kid gloves and consistently given them unduly lenient sentences.
That Hong Kong’s once-highly respected judiciary has become an object of public criticism recently has given rise to the notion that public confidence in the judiciary’s independence and professionalism could have been compromised.
It is fair to say that public criticism of the judiciary has not simply come out of thin air but stemmed from genuine perception of some judges’ “consistently undue leniency” toward certain kinds of offenders.
The Department of Justice on Wednesday appealed to the High Court for a review of the sentence handed down to a 16-year-old girl, who in a lower court ruling was given a 12-month probation order for possessing bomb materials. Earlier, the department succeeded in another review case, resulting in the replacement of an 18-month probation order with time in a correctional facility for a 15-year-old boy who had pleaded guilty to arson. The department is expected to file for a review on more court verdicts that have been controversial.
Clearly, the root of this problem lies in the lack of sufficient supervision mechanisms to keep checks on judicial officers. For example, the judiciary does not have definitive sentencing guidelines for offenses committed by anti-extradition rioters, resulting in many controversial decisions from judges who are sympathetic to the defendants. That is why public demand for judicial reform has never been stronger than now.
Judicial reform is nothing new among developed common law societies, especially the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, the US and the UK underwent judicial reforms of their own accord back in the 1970s and 1980s, which included the introduction of sentencing guidelines. But Hong Kong for some reason has missed the call of the times. The Justice Department has used its right of appeal to have several controversial sentences overturned or corrected. Such efforts were applauded but cannot be expected to prevent judges from succumbing to their own biases without the necessary reforms in the judicial system and adjudication process. To that end, Hong Kong can learn a lot from the US’ and UK’s judicial reforms.
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