Judiciary rejects claims against ‘biased’ magistrates

The judiciary on Friday dismissed a barrage of complaints against two magistrates accused of being biased in their rulings, saying the claims against them were unfounded.

Chief Justice Andrew Cheung decided that multiple complaints of a similar nature against Fanling Court magistrate Don So and former Eastern Court magistrate Stanley Ho were unsubstantiated, after taking into account the findings of a panel of judges who carried out an investigation, and the advice of a nine-member advisory committee dealing with complaints on judicial conduct.

The complaints against So concerned a case in which he sentenced social worker Lau Ka-tung to 12 months in prison after finding him guilty of obstructing a police officer at a protest in July 2019. Lau took his case to the High Court, which dismissed his appeal against his conviction but reduced his sentence to eight months in prison.

The complainants said the magistrate had been biased against Lau and in favour of the police, and that his verdict and sentence were unreasonable. They took issue, for example, with the fact that So did not obtain Lau’s background report before passing sentence.

But a panel of judges disagreed that the magistrate had been biased. They cited the High Court ruling in the case, which said that as an adult with legal representation, Lau did not have any special personal or family circumstances that warranted the use of public funds for a background report, and the magistrate’s decision to not obtain such a report cannot be faulted.

As to claims that Lau’s verdict and sentence were unreasonable, the judiciary held that those were judicial decisions that fell outside the scope of complaints regarding judges’ conduct.

The complaints against Ho were made in connection with the 120-hour community service order he imposed on a hotel worker found guilty of unlawful assembly at a Halloween protest in 2019.

The justice secretary took the case to the Court of Appeal arguing the sentence was inadequate and the court agreed, increasing the punishment to three months in prison.

The complainants alleged that in describing the defendant’s conduct as “not very violent” and by saying that his admission of responsibility “was to be encouraged”, the magistrate had shown his bias and political inclination, misleading the public into thinking people can express their opinions through illegal or violent acts.

But the judiciary said a transcript of the magistrate’s ruling showed that he was only stating facts confirmed by the prosecution, and his remark about the defendant’s admission of responsibility was clearly a reference to his guilty plea, rather than his criminal act.

Despite dismissing the complaints, the judiciary reminded magistrates and judges to refrain from making remarks on controversial issues when handling cases.

“The advisory committee stressed that when carrying out their judicial functions, judges and judicial officers should refrain from expressing views on controversial issues in the community so as to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding and allegations of actual or perceived bias, which might compromise public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.”