A Hong Kong judge has been barred from handling protest-related cases after he signed a petition against the now-withdrawn extradition bill that sparked the ongoing anti-government unrest, the second to be sidelined in a bid to avoid the perception of bias.
The High Court’s Patrick Li Hon-leung would not hear any cases connected with issues arising from the petition he backed, the city’s judiciary revealed on Thursday.
Citing the Guide to Judicial Conduct, a judiciary spokesman said: “A particular judge is disqualified from sitting if the circumstances are such as would lead a reasonable, fair-minded and well-informed observer to conclude that there is a real possibility that the judge would be biased.
“In general, the above fundamental principles apply to the listing of cases at various levels of courts. In accordance with the above principles, no case concerning the issues arising from the petition signed by [Li] has been listed before him to avoid any apparent bias.”
Li, who graduated from the University of Hong Kong’s law school, is a former classmate of Benny Tai Yiu-ting, now a legal scholar there and an activist who co-founded 2014’s Occupy Central protests, which demanded universal suffrage for Hong Kong.
Li’s signature appeared last May on a petition launched by a handful of HKU alumni, calling for the government to withdraw the proposed amendments to the extradition bill.
The judiciary said Li had not handled any cases in relation to the petition since then, apart from an application for habeas corpus on October 1 last year, when he was the duty judge on a roster handling urgent cases on the public holiday.
The application was filed by actor Gregory Wong Chung-yiu, who had been arrested in connection with the July 1 protest at the Legislative Council. Li granted his application.
The spokesman for the judiciary said the applicant’s legal representatives made the bid directly to Li in accordance with the established mechanism and practice for urgent applications.
“During the hearing, the representative from the Department of Justice did not apply for recuse of Li or object to the application,” the spokesman said.
The judiciary later confirmed that a judge’s name was among the nearly 3,000 on a petition denouncing the proposal. It was then reported that Li was given a warning by the chief justice.
Li’s case followed a rare rebuke from the city’s most senior judge earlier this week of sitting justice Kwok Wai-kin, who in a controversial judgment expressed sympathy for a serious violent offender who attacked three people at a site used by protesters as a “Lennon Wall” to post anti-government messages.
Kwok described the offender as “an involuntary sacrifice and a bloodstained victim”.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li asked him to refrain from airing views on controversial issues and decided that, for the time being, he should not deal with any cases with a similar political context, saying judges and judicial officers must not be biased or reasonably deemed to be biased.
Ma’s criticism of Kwok led some pro-government supporters to accuse the chief justice of applying double standards for not taking action against those judges they considered had sympathised with protesters.
Legislator Holden Chow Ho-ding, of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, called Li’s case a “belated response”.
“Late is better than never. At least, it shows that the judiciary is applying the same set of standards to deal with different judges over similarly controversial acts,” Chow said.
Hong Kong has been gripped by social unrest triggered last June by the now-abandoned extradition bill, and later morphed into a wider anti-government movement.
The judiciary has frequently found itself under fire from both sides of the political divide for its rulings on cases relating to the protests, with judges often the targets.
Some pro-government supporters have accused the judiciary of dragging its feet in meting out punishment to protesters, while anti-government radicals have painted graffiti on the outer wall of the High Court, insulting a judge who jailed three over the Mong Kok riot in 2016.
Meanwhile, a Security Bureau task force held its first meeting on Thursday to follow up on the 52 recommendations put forward by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) in a review of the force’s handling of the anti-government protests.
The task force agreed to set up five subgroups to look at the recommendations.
Security minister John Lee Ka-chiu, who presided over the meeting, said it would regularly submit a progress report to the chief executive. The first was planned for August, followed by quarterly reports.
It always seems impossible until it is done.