Hong Kong’s chief justice issued a rare rebuke of a sitting judge on Monday, and warned that expressing “unnecessary political views” threatened to erode the public’s faith in the legal system.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said judges should refrain from any views on controversial matters, as he revealed that District Judge Kwok Wai-kin would continue to be barred from handling political cases.
Last month, Kwok expressed sympathy for tour guide Tony Hung Chun, 51, when jailing him for stabbing three people. In his ruling he also compared anti-government protesters to a “terrorist army”.
In a rare statement on Monday, Ma said judges and judicial officers must not be biased nor reasonably perceived to be biased.
“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. This is particularly so with political views of whatever nature,” his statement read.
“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.”
Not sticking to these principles would threaten the public’s confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, Ma added.
In April, Kwok jailed Hung to 45 months in jail for stabbing a journalist, and two other people, last August with a steak knife inside a pedestrian tunnel – used by protesters as a Lennon Wall to post anti-government messages.
In his controversial judgment, he described Hung as “an involuntary sacrifice and a bloodstained victim hanging by his last breath” amid the social unrest. The knife attack left the three victims, aged 24 to 35, needing hospital treatment.
But Kwok, who once said politics played no role in sentencing, said the defendant would not have committed such a serious offence if it were not for the social unrest.
Ma said the ruling caused controversy because “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”.
Having already reminded Kwok of the importance of upholding these principles, Ma said he had agreed that the judge should not deal with any cases involving a similar political context, for the time being.
Ma recently announced his retirement as chief justice, and will step aside in January 2021 to be replaced by Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung.
Since last summer, Hong Kong has been gripped by social unrest that was triggered by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, and later morphed into a wider anti-government movement.
The increasingly violent confrontation between protesters and officers had seen the arrest of about 8,000, while at least 1,365 people have been prosecuted.
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