That Hong Kong's continuing prosperity and stability are founded upon the rule of law is an axiom that today enjoys almost universal currency, both within our city and across the wider worlds of commerce, finance and investment. But who ensures that this precious commodity is preserved and protected? While it is rightly argued that the Government, the Law Society, the Bar Association, and ultimately the public at large all have roles to play in this sacred civic duty, most would acknowledge that our courts must always be the final arbiters of the rule of law. The Hong Kong courts have a reputation for judicial independence that has attracted the admiration of the Common Law world. The highest of those courts is the Court of Final Appeal, over which today's honorand, the Honourable Chief Justice, Mr Geoffrey Ma Tao Li, has presided since 2010. During that time, the Chief Justice has been a determined champion of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, equally effective in his judicial role at the apex of our legal system, in his often less well recognised post as the administrative head of the entire judiciary, and in his more public role as the most easily recognisable advocate of the underlying principles of our legal system and the protections afforded to each of us by the Basic Law.
Geoffrey Ma was born in Hong Kong in 1956, the son of an electrical engineer educated in our own Engineering Faculty, but his family originally hails from Tianjin. His ancestors were adherents of the Muslim faith, and his great-grandfather had been the imam in the Muslim community in Shanghai before the war. Mr Ma's parents moved to Hong Kong in the late 1940s, but in the 1960s they moved again to Manchester in the United Kingdom, where he was educated at Altrincham Grammar School. At his brother's suggestion, he studied law at the University of Birmingham, where he took his LLB in 1977. After completing his Bar Finals in London in 1978, he was called to the English Bar as a member of Gray's Inn. Returning to Hong Kong in 1980, he completed his pupillage under Mr Robert Tang (who recently retired from the Court of Final Appeal) in the Chambers of the legendary Brook Bernacchi QC before being admitted to the local Bar; he was later admitted to the Bar of the Australian State of Victoria in 1983, and the Singapore Bar in 1990. During his time in private practice, in both Hong Kong and Singapore, his main areas of expertise were in arbitration, commercial, company, building, administrative and constitutional law, with special interests in shipping, admiralty, banking and insurance. He acted for the government in the important right of abode cases before the Court of Final Appeal in the late 1990s. Mr Ma was a member of the Bar Council in 1982-84 and again in 1992-96, an adjudicator of the Registration of Persons Tribunal (1987-96), a member of the Criminal and Law Enforcement Injuries Compensation Board (1991-2001), Chairman of the Buildings Appeal Tribunal Panel (1994-2001), Deputy Chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission Appeals Panel (1999-2001), and a member of many other legal and appellate bodies. Mr Ma also taught as an Honorary Lecturer in our Department of Professional Legal Education from 1987, a honorary post which he still holds today. He was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1993, Recorder of the High Court in 2000, and joined the Judiciary at the early age of forty-five as a Judge of the Court of First Instance of the High Court in 2001. He became a Justice of Appeal in the Court of Appeal in 2002. Mr Ma was appointed Chief Judge of the High Court in 2003 and led the High Court with distinction, both judicially and administratively, for seven years, presiding over the Court of Appeal at the same time as ensuring the smooth operation of the High Court through the efficient utilisation of judicial resources and court time. While serving as Chief Judge he was also responsible for deliberations on the Civil Justice Reform and oversaw the implementation of the new civil justice procedures. He was appointed Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal in September 2010.
As Chief Justice, Mr Ma's responsibilities are numerous and demanding. He presides in the highest appellate court in Hong Kong. Our Court of Final Appeal comprises the Chief Justice, three permanent judges and non-permanent judges, including eminent judges from other common law jurisdictions. These are among the finest legal minds in the Common Law world; it is their job both to determine final appeals in criminal and civil law, and perhaps more importantly to develop fundamental principles of public law under the novel constitutional order provided by the Basic Law. This may at times be no easy task. In determining the constitutionality of the acts of the executive and the legislature, the Court of Final Appeal must construe the Basic Law and the rights set out in it. This is a constitutional responsibility. In fulfilling this role, the courts in Hong Kong have been careful to avoid too 'literal, technical, narrow or rigid' an approach to guaranteed rights under the Basic Law, aiming rather to give a generous interpretation to them. Important public law appeals heard by the Court of Final Appeal have involved developing numerous constitutional principles encompassing the public interest in areas such as the right of abode, freedom of speech, environmental issues, marriage, social welfare, and elections, to name just a few. In determining these often complex and intellectually demanding appeals, the Court of Final Appeal has exhibited a collegiality and an efficiency which is the envy of many other legal jurisdictions, together with a determination to uphold its judicial independence. The public rightly expects the Chief Justice and his court to give Hong Kong residents the full measure of the fundamental rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Basic Law. The Chief Justice has been especially forthright in his maintenance of the independence of the Judiciary and the principal of equal treatment for all who come before the law. He has been known to quote the ancient Greek philosopher Plato on the question of equality, but his own pronouncements on this subject are just as eloquent as any classical author. In all his public statements as Chief Justice, and especially each January at the ceremonial opening of the legal year, Mr Ma has emphasised time and again the principal of equality before the law, the independence of the Judiciary, the importance of maintaining the Common Law system in Hong Kong while also recognising the role of international jurisprudence to assist in determining constitutional questions, the proper and effective administration of justice, the need to ensure access to justice for all citizens, the transparency of the judicial process, and the imperative that only judges of the highest calibre and integrity should be recruited to the Hong Kong judiciary. He has therefore been one of the staunchest advocates for the rule of law in our city, recognition of which is evident in his appointment as one of the patrons of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law in London.
Plato is often credited with having said: 'A hero is born among a hundred; a wise person is found among a thousand; but an accomplished one might not be found even among a hundred thousand people.' Mr Ma has long been an heroic advocate for the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the equality of all citizens and institutions before the law. Our Chief Justice is constantly reinforcing a reverence for and a trust in the rule of law - which we all hold so dear - by his wise and measured legal statements. This wisdom is to be found embedded in the countless judgements and determinations which his court has delivered over the last ten years, and his regular public pronouncements as the head of our judiciary. But all of this has been achieved within the extraordinarily demanding context of his administrative role in our justice system, for Hong Kong, unlike a number of other common law jurisdictions, expects our Chief Justice to be the administrative head of the judiciary. Few people realise that the office of Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal is one of the most onerous of all the principal offices in the Hong Kong SAR. During his time as Chief Justice, Mr Ma has wrestled with a number of serious problems ranging from the recruitment of judges, their conditions of service, and their increasingly heavy workloads, to the completion of new law courts in West Kowloon and the transfer of the Court of Final Appeal to its renovated home in the heart of Central. As an advocate for the rule of law, a judge and leader of the Judiciary, he is, in the Platonic sense, one of our most accomplished public figures.
Madam Chancellor, in recognition of his dedicated and distinguished public service to the Judiciary and the Hong Kong community, it is my honour and privilege to present to you the Honourable Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao Li for the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.
Citation written and delivered by Dr Peter Cunich, the Public Orator of the University.