Skip to main content

Plenty of talk about rule of law but do we truly care?

In early February, the University of Hong Kong's law faculty and the Institute of Education co-organised a symposium on core values, human rights and the rule of law education.

Last year, a steering committee comprising academics, practitioners and non-governmental organisation workers came together for a project on the rule of law education (ROLE).

Role is non-professional legal education for laymen aimed at cultivating legal awareness among the public. It is believed that fostering legal literacy among people will help sustain the rule of law.

Why do academics and practitioners think there is a pressing need to work more seriously on Role at the school and community levels?

The rule of law is an ideal that public life be organised based on principles, rules and law. Public officials' role, authority and the exercise of power should be based on law, and checked and balanced so that arbitrariness can be minimised.

The core idea is to restrain power and to provide a principled basis for its exercise. Power should be justified and reasonably curbed.

An independent judiciary based on equality, justice, fairness and deliberation is essential to putting that ideal into practice. Judicial review - the court's power to review the legality of government acts - is but the cornerstone.

Also important, besides institutional arrangement, is how the people value the ideal. If people no longer see restraining arbitrary power and a principled public life as essential to a free society, or when people are willing to compromise the law's function to scrutinise power for the sake of, say, utility and expediency, our liberty and autonomy will be jeopardised.

The rule of law is always said to be a "core value" that Hong Kong embraces.

If so, when a right or principle that is fundamental to the rule of law is at stake, one would expect the people should be able to identify and opt for it, even at some cost.

However, when people think a fundamental right or principle can be circumscribed for the sake of expediency, core values can't exist.

Remember the public response to the judicial review of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge in 2011?

The application, which was a regular exercise of constitutional rights to ensure the legality of administrative action, was blamed for causing delays and cost increases in the construction project.

Such a public reaction should not have come as a surprise.

From a legal culture survey that I involved in 2006, it was found that only 30 per cent of respondents agreed with using a judicial review to challenge the government, while 41 per cent disagreed and 29 per cent said they didn't know. [See: Ng and Kuan, “Legal Culture.” In Indicators of Social Development Hong Kong 2006, edited by Leung Sai-wing and others, 25-46. Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2008.]

Previous findings from the Social Indicators Project, a long-term collaborative research effort involving several universities, and a more recent study on teachers' attitudes towards human rights and the rule of law conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education, point to an insufficiently informed, unprincipled and contradictory popular legal culture.

When we say the rule of law, we mean it. Hong Kong people should take it seriously, see its relevance to public life and discourse and be ready to give to defend it as a core value.


An edited version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post as "Plenty of talk about rule of law but do we truly care?"