Chairman's Speech at the Opening of Legal Year 2001

The Honourable Chief Justice, the Secretary for Justice, the President of the Law Society, Honourable Judges, Distinguished Guests and members of the legal profession, ladies and gentlemen:-

The year 2000, like the year before, continued to be occupied, from a lawyer's point of view, by controversies involving fundamental Constitutional and Rule of Law issues. The Secretary for Justice has rightly said that in the infancy of the SAR, it was inevitable that there might be problems which needed to be worked out under the new constitutional order. I agree. But what lies at the heart of these controversies, is the approach to these problems which the SAR as a whole should adopt.

The Basic Law is our mini-constitution. It clearly sets out the fundamental freedoms and rights of the people of Hong Kong. It also delineates the bare-bone structure of our political, judicial and social systems. It has been said that a constitution is a mirror reflecting the national soul: that it must recognise and protect the values of a nation. Where, as in our Basic Law, there is an express incorporation of international values enshrined in international covenants such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other international labour conventions, our mirror reflects not simply the values of our society but also universal principles of civilisation and justice.

The People of Hong Kong, thus, have a legitimate aspiration, even expectation, that the ideals of the grand concept of One Country, Two Systems will be realized; that their constitutional freedoms and rights will be guaranteed and protected; that Rule of Law will continue to prevail.

This aspiration or expectation should never be mistaken as a symbol of destabilisation or source of conflict of our society. Quite the contrary, it is the constitutional duty of the SAR Government to fulfil such aspiration or expectation.

Where a constitutional issue which directly concerns the fundamental right or freedom of the people has arisen, nothing will divide or even polarize a society more than if the government is to adopt a defensive mentality in any rational debate. No man is infallible and no government is beyond reproach. But in any rational debate on constitutional issues, there are no real protagonists. People have a right to express their aspirations or concerns where their fundamental rights and freedoms are threatened. People who speak out are not enemies of the state. There is thus no need for a government to seek to justify its actions, or to orchestrate or rally support. Still less to seek to alienate or even stigmatize certain sections of the community. Such conduct is neither convincing nor constructive.

Rather, the role of a responsible government, as a leader of the community it serves, is to analyze and explain to the people the important Constitutional or Rule of Law principles and values involved in order to stimulate a calm and rational debate in the resolution of the Constitutional or Rule of Law issue concerned.

The role of a responsible lawyer, on the other hand, as a professional learned in the law, is to contribute constructively towards the resolution of Constitutional or Rule of Law issues by offering his expertise in the law and explaining to the people the importance of the Constitutional or Rule of Law principles and values involved. I used the word "lawyer" advisedly. For I make no distinction between Judges, Barristers or Solicitors. I call on the legal community as a whole not to shrink from their collective responsibility towards the society we serve.

The public cannot make a decision as to what they want unless they are properly informed. The support of a misinformed public is meaningless. For example, how much value can one attach to the support of a school choir in the recent Public Order debate, if the children are not explained that if they sing at a peaceful but unlawful public assembly, they face the threat of a lengthy imprisonment.

The Bar considers that at this vital period of infancy, the SAR needs particular nurture and attention in the form of more well trained constitutional lawyers. Of the two universities where law courses are run, there is only one Chair for Public Law. Even then, Professor Yash Ghai of the University of Hong Kong is nowadays hardly ever in Hong Kong. Worst still, there is a real threat that his Chair might not even continue after the present contract expires.

This is woefully inadequate for a World Class City like Hong Kong. We are an advanced and affluent society. Surely we can afford a more permanent Chair in Constitutional Law in each of the two Universities where lawyers are trained. We call on the SAR Government and the community at large to contribute towards the setting up of these Chairs.

The Bar has very limited resources; but we are prepared to do what we can to assist in this respect. Meanwhile, the Bar will set up a prize in Constitutional Law in order to stimulate interest of law students in this very important area of the law.

My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, we are a matured community. The time has come for us to take a serious look at our constitutional environment and work with undivided efforts towards the realization of the grand concept of One Country, Two Systems in the new year to come.

Thank you.

Ronny K.W. Tong, S.C.

Dated this 8th day of January 2001.