Roberto Alexandre Vieira RIBEIRO
Doctor of Laws
It is exceptionally rare for our University to honour one of its former teachers with an honorary degree, but in the person of the Honourable Mr Justice Robert Ribeiro we have an honorand who is much better known for his many years of judicial work than his early teaching career in our Faculty of Law during the 1970s. After leaving his lectureship at HKU in 1979, Mr Ribeiro practised as a barrister for twenty years before joining the judiciary, but after only one year as a judge, he was appointed as a Permanent Judge in the Court of Final Appeal in September 2000. He is therefore the longest serving justice on the bench of Hong Kong's highest appellate court and has been involved in dozens of determinations and judgements that have enriched the fledgling and distinctive jurisprudence of our singular Common Law jurisdiction. His intellect and energy have often been praised, and even though he has now reached the age of seventy, he continues to be one of the hardest working and most intellectually able judges in our judiciary.
Robert Ribeiro was born into a well-known Macanese family in Hong Kong in 1949. The Ribeiros can trace their ancestry back ten generations to the first members of their Chinese family who became Catholics in Macau in 1704, but the Ribeiros have now been settled in Hong Kong for four generations. The Ribeiro name is not unknown at the University of Hong Kong, for Mr Ribeiro's uncle graduated in medicine in the late 1930s before returning to Macau during the war years to undertake medical relief work among the thousands of refugees who fled across the Pearl River from Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. Like the chief justice, Mr Ribeiro is the son of an electrical engineer. He was educated at La Salle College where he became interested in English literature and debating, and was eventually attracted to the law as a career, but at that time law degrees were not offered in Hong Kong. He went instead to London in 1968 and studied at the London School of Economics, where he graduated LLB in 1971 and LLM in 1972. Mr Ribeiro had already decided on an academic career at the end of his undergraduate degree, and was offered lecturing jobs at Aberystwyth and Hong Kong. Fortunately for us, he eschewed the wilderness of Wales and instead chose to return to Hong Kong, where he began an academic career teaching in the newly-founded Faculty of Law in late 1972. His first years as a lecturer in our law school were incredibly busy; Mr Ribeiro recalls the incessant grind of writing lectures for new courses, trying desperately to keep a week ahead of his students, but he was a great success with those students, many of whom remember him as one of the most organised and lucid of teachers. His courses were initially in the fields of criminal law and jurisprudence, but later extended to labour law and civil procedure, areas in which there was no legal literature and only very rudimentary law reports available at that time. These were slim resources upon which to lay the foundations of teaching in these increasingly important fields of the law. His early research in these areas was published in the recently-established Hong Kong Law Journal, while in 1973 he also took a principled stance in the heated public debate concerning capital punishment. Mr Ribeiro remembers his years as a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong with great affection and pride: he was part of a dedicated team of young academics who literally laid the foundations of legal education in Hong Kong, so it is appropriate that he should be honoured by the University in the same year that our Faculty of Law celebrates its golden jubilee.
Mr Ribeiro ultimately found the academic life to be somewhat intellectually limiting, so he decided to return to Bar school in London, where he was in the same class as our Chief Justice. Some of his other fellow students turned out to be people he had recently taught at HKU. The bar offered an opportunity for him to work more actively with legal concepts and hone his skills in advocacy. Mr Ribeiro was admitted to the English Bar as a member of the Inner Temple in 1978 and, returning to Hong Kong, practised in the field of commercial law as a member of Temple Chambers from 1979. This was a time when Hong Kong was developing rapidly as an international financial centre, with some of the world's largest banks and shipping firms headquartered in the city, and many important legal cases were argued in the Hong Kong courts by some of the leading barristers from London. Mr Ribeiro says it was a real education for him to be led by some of the finest legal minds and best advocates in their legal fields, with his most interesting cases being in admiralty work and auditors' negligence cases, including the infamous Carrion case. He memorably acted for the British government in the Spycatcher case, and for the Airport Authority during the enquiry into the botched opening of Chek Lap Kok airport in 1998. Mr Ribeiro was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1990, and was made Recorder in the Court of First Instance in 1997. He joined the judiciary in 1999 as a judge in the Court of First Instance of the High Court, and then in January 2000 became a Justice of Appeal. Only nine months later he was appointed as a Permanent Judge in the Court of Final Appeal, a court that at that time had only been in existence for barely three years.
During nearly two decades as a Permanent Judge in the Court of Final Appeal, Mr Ribeiro has been involved in numerous appeal cases of a constitutional nature. These cases, often involving the interpretation of the Basic Law, have resulted in some of the most important judgements in Hong Kong's recent jurisprudential history. These include cases concerning the Right of Abode, sovereign immunity, freedom of speech, and the election process, but also extend to areas as varied as maintenance and champerty, the internet, LGBT rights, civil partnerships, employment, medical negligence, and divorce. It is a little difficult for a layperson such as myself to understand the complex legal issues that are decided in the Court of Final Appeal, but having visited Mr Ribeiro in his chambers I have now seen the enormous quantity of legal material that must be considered in arriving at a judgement in any case that comes before the Court of Final Appeal. We academics are accustomed to reading weighty intellectual tomes in our daily toil, but in Mr Ribeiro's work, just one case often requires a judge to digest twenty or more thick volumes of dense legal material that must be carefully weighed and considered before a judgement can be given. Our senior judges therefore have to be intellectually brilliant, extremely hard-working, and efficient in order to perform the duties that we expect of them. In addition to his duties in the Court of Final Appeal, Mr Ribeiro was also closely involved (as vice-chairman) in the deliberations of the Chief Justice's Working Party on Civil Justice Reform, for which he drafted the interim and final reports on which the procedural reforms adopted in 2009 were based. These reforms are aimed at giving greater case management powers to judges and encouraging mediation between litigants, but also at making justice more accessible and efficient for each of us. From 2008 to 2014, Mr Ribeiro was a member of the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, the body that recommends judicial appointments in Hong Kong. Outside his judicial work, Mr Ribeiro has been involved in several important community organisations: he was for many years President of Alliance Française in Hong Kong, and has been a member of the boards of the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Hong Kong International Film Festival. He has been honoured outside of Hong Kong by being made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur in France, he is an Honorary Bencher of the Inner Temple in London, and is an Honorary Fellow of both the London School of Economics and St Hugh's College, Oxford.
Madam Chancellor, in recognition of his dedicated and distinguished public service to the Judiciary and to the Hong Kong community, it is my honour and privilege to present to you the Honourable Mr Justice Roberto Alexandre Vieira Ribiero for the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.
Citation written and delivered by Dr Peter Cunich, the Public Orator of the University.