82nd Congregation (2016)
The Hon. Chief Justice Geoffrey MA Tao-li
Our university confers its honorary degrees on people who have made valuable contributions to society. They might be doctors or Nobel Prize winning medical researchers who improve our health. They might be businessmen or women who give back some of their wealth to create philanthropic endowments to help the disadvantaged or contribute to other important causes. They might be educators or scholars with responsibility for training the minds of the next generation or helping all of us understand our society better. They might be civil servants or politicians entrusted with government.
These are all vital contributions to society. But there is another profession which actually makes society possible. Without it all the others, the corporate entities and the institutional and governmental structures, many of our individual transactions, our very freedoms and rights, would be unable to function. In order to flourish, or even exist, any free society made up of individuals and institutions needs certainty and fairness, or what we usually call justice. And in order for justice to be done and, just as importantly, for justice to be seen to be done, everyone needs to know what the rules are and that they will be applied equally to everyone. And those rules are the laws. Before them everyone must be equal, including governments and businesses. There is abundant evidence that everyone prefers to do business, and preferably to live, in the jurisdictions where that is true.
The people who ensure the proper functioning of the rule of law are, of course, lawyers. That group of lawyers more properly referred to as jurists, those whose job it is to interpret and apply the laws which bind our society together, are surely among the most important people in our community. We all depend on their wisdom, their impartiality and above all their freedom.
We are here today to honour one of Hong Kong's great bastions of that juristic freedom. If our judges and justices collectively have the great responsibility of protecting our rule of law, the highest responsibility of all rests with the Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal. And for the last six years that person has been Geoffrey Ma Tao-li.
Geoffrey Ma is a native Hongkonger, born here in 1956. He was educated from an early age in England where he obtained his Bachelor of Laws from Birmingham University at the age of only 21. His father had persuaded him to study for a profession rather than take a history degree, and his brother at Oxford gave him the idea of studying law. So we should all be grateful to Geoffrey's family for steering him in the direction he took. At Birmingham, which is one of the most highly regarded law schools in the country, his teachers were inspiring, and gave him a strong foundation for his subsequent career. He joined Gray's Inn during his third year, and was called to the English Bar in 1978.
After his pupillage in London, Geoffrey Ma returned to Hong Kong and was called to the Bar here in 1980, obtaining his first brief the very next day. He soon moved to Temple Chambers at Pacific Place where he remained, including as Head of Chambers, until he became a judge. He took silk as a Queen’s Counsel in 1993. He was also called to the Bar in the State of Victoria in Australia in 1983 and in Singapore in 1990 (where he also practised). An important part of Geoffrey's practice as a silk was in constitutional law which was to stand him in good stead in the future. He was elevated to the Court of First Instance in 2001 and the Court of Appeal in 2002, and was appointed Chief Judge of the High Court in 2003. He has been Chairman of the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission and a Member of the Law Reform Commission since 2010 and was heavily engaged in the reform of the Civil Justice System in Hong Kong. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Arbitration in Hong Kong: A Practical Guide (2003) and Professional Conduct and Risk Management in Hong Kong (2007).
Chief Justice Ma became an Honorary Bencher of Gray's Inn in 2004. He is only the third person in Hong Kong to receive this honour. He was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa by the University of Birmingham in 2011, and became an Honorary Fellow of Harris Manchester College at Oxford University in 2012. He was awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal in June 2012. Last month, he became an Honorary Bencher of Middle Temple as well.
His many non-legal contributions to Hong Kong society include roles as Chairman of the Appeal Tribunal Panel for Buildings (1994-2001) and the Environmental Impact Assessment Appeal Board Panel (2001); Deputy Chairman of the Board of Review Panel (Inland Revenue) (1997-2000) and the Securities and Futures Commission Appeals Panel (1999-2001); and Member of the Hong Kong Futures Exchange Disciplinary Appeal Tribunal (1994-2001) and Criminal and Law Enforcement Injuries Compensation Boards (1991-2001). He has been President of the Hong Kong Scout Association since 2008.
Geoffrey Ma's father once told him that if we had another life we should keep the same family, but try something new and different in our careers. Chief Justice Ma is in no doubt about his family, who helped to set him on his path in life, and who include his wife Maria Yuen Ka-ning, who is also a Justice of Appeal of the Court of Appeal, and their daughter. As for career, it is hard to imagine anything he could have done in another life which would have been of greater value to our community.
Many people in this audience will have been present three years ago to hear Chief Justice Ma give one of CUHK's 50th Anniversary Distinguished Lectures. Its title was ‘The Essence of Our Society: from a Written Constitution to Reality and into the Future 50 Years’. He spoke about the Basic Law, which he said, ‘provides a guarantee of rights and liberties, enabling everyone in Hong Kong to live a full life, pursue happiness and have the peace of mind of knowing that there is an entity: the law — before which everyone is equal and on which reliance can safely be placed to protect them and their families.’ As he explained, an independent judiciary enforcing those rights and liberties and continuing to earn the respect and confidence of the community is an essential part of the Basic Law. At this present moment in Hong Kong's history our need for that independent judiciary has never been greater, and no one has a more essential role within it than the Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal.
For his unique contribution to sustaining and preserving the legal foundations of Hong Kong society, it gives me great pleasure, Mr Chairman, to present to you the Honourable Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
This citation is written by Professor Simon Haines