Judiciary of Hong Kong

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The judiciary in Hong Kong is responsible for the administration of justice in the territory. It hears all prosecutions and civil disputes, including disputes between individuals and the government. It is fundamental to the Hong Kong legal system that members of the judiciary are independent of the executive and legislative branches of the HKSAR Government. The courts of law in Hong Kong comprise the Court of Final Appeal, the High Court (which includes the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance), the District Courts (which includes the Family Court and the Lands Tribunal), the Magistrates' Courts (which includes the Juvenile Court), the Coroner's Court, the Labour Tribunal, the Small Claims Tribunal, and the Obscene Articles Tribunal. The Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal is head of the judiciary and assisted in his administrative duties by the Judiciary Administrator. A bilingual court system in which Chinese, English or both can be used was put in place, in accordance with the requirement of the Basic Law.

The Court of Final Appeal

Statue of Themis on the Court of Final Appeal Building.

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It was established on 1 July 1997 upon the commencement of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal Ordinance to safeguard the rule of law after 30 June 1997. It replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as the highest appellate court of Hong Kong, The Court comprises five judges — the Chief Justice, three permanent judges and one non-permanent judge from Hong Kong or another common law jurisdictions. There is a panel of eight non-permanent Hong Kong judges and nine non-permanent judges from other common law jurisdictions.

The High Court

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The High Court was established by the High Court Ordinance (Chapter 4, formally titled the "Supreme Court Ordinance"), as the "Supreme Court of Hong Kong". It was renamed the "High Court" by Article 81 of the Basic law of Hong Kong. It consists of the Court of Appeal and Court of First Instance (formally "The High Court of Justice")

The Court of Appeal

The High Court in Admiralty

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It hears appeals on civil and criminal matters from the Court of First Instance and the District Court, as well as appeals from the Lands Tribunal. It also makes rulings on questions of law referred to it by the lower courts. There are 10 Justices of Appeal, including the Chief Judge of the High Court and three other justices being the Vice-President.

The Court of First Instance

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It has unlimited jurisdiction in both civil and criminal matters. It also exercises jurisdiction in admiralty, bankruptcy, company winding-up, family, adoption, probate and mental health matters. The most serious criminal offences, such as murder, manslaughter, rape, armed robbery, complex commercial frauds and drug offences involving large quantities, are tried by a judge of the Court of First Instance, sitting with a jury consisting of seven or, when a judge so orders, nine. There are approximately 42 Judges and Deputy Judges of the Court of First Instance.

The District Court

The location of courts in Hong Kong

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The District Court, established in 1953, is the intermediate court of Hong Kong. It has limited jurisdiction in both civil and criminal matters. With effect from 1 December 2003, it has civil jurisdiction to hear monetary claims up to $1 million; or where the claims are for the recovery of land, of which the annual rent or rateable value does not exceed $240,000. In its criminal jurisdiction, the court may try the more serious cases, with the main exceptions of murder, manslaughter and rape. The maximum term of imprisonment it may impose is seven years. There are one Chief District Judge and 30 District Judges, among which three District Judges sit in the Family Court and two District Judges sit in the Lands Tribunal as Presiding Officers.

The Magistrates' Courts

Fanling Magistrates' Court

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Magistrates exercise criminal jurisdiction over a wide range of offences. Although there is a general limit of two years imprisonment or a fine of $100,000, certain statutory provisions give Magistrates the power to sentence up to three years imprisonment and to impose a fine up to $5,000,000. Prosecution of all indictable offences commences in the Magistrates' Courts, the Secretary for Justice may apply to have a case transferred to the District Court or committed to the Court of First Instance of the High Court depending on the seriousness of a case. There are approximately 70 Magistrates, sitting in various Tribunals and seven Magistrates' Courts: Eastern, Kowloon City, Kwun Tong, Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin, Fanling and Tuen Mun. A Principal Magistrate is in charge of each Magistrates’ Courts. The Chief Magistrate, whose chamber is at the Kowloon City Law Courts Building, oversees the work of all magistracies. The most junior judicial role is that of Special Magistrate, who typically deals only with minor offences such as hawking contraventions, traffic offences and other departmental summonses. Appeals against Magistrates’ decisions are heard by a Judge of the Court of First Instance.

The Juvenile Court

The Juvenile Court has jurisdiction to hear charges against children (aged under 14) and young persons (aged between 14 and 16) for any offence other than homicide. Children under 10 are exempted from criminal responsibility. The Juvenile Court also has power to deal with care and protection cases involving young people aged up to 18. A juvenile magistrate will explain the alleged offence to the child or young person in simple language and assist him/her if need arises. Before passing sentence, the magistrate may consider pre-sentencing reports. Press coverage of the proceedings in a juvenile court is restricted to avoid disclosure of the identity of a defendant. The Juvenile Court sits in the Eastern, Kowloon City, Tsuen Wan, Fanling and Tuen Mun Magistrates’ Courts.

Special courts and tribunals

The Coroner’s Court

Coroners are empowered to investigate unnatural or suspicious deaths occurring in Hong Kong (and deaths occurring outside Hong Kong if the body is found within Hong Kong). Except when death occurs while the individual is in custody, or the Secretary for Justice directs, the Coroner decides whether or not to hold an inquest with or without a jury. The inquest is mandatory with a jury where the death occurs in custody. The main purpose of an inquest is to ascertain the cause of and the circumstances connected with the death. If appropriate, a Coroner or a jury may make recommendations designed to prevent the recurrence of the fatality under investigation.

The Lands Tribunal

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One of the important functions of the Lands Tribunal is to adjudicate claims by landlords for possession of premises, the tenancies or sub-tenancies of which are under the Landlord and Tenant (Consolidation) Ordinance (Cap. 7). Starting from 9 July 2004, the Tribunal also has power to adjudicate claims for possession of premises, the tenancies or sub-tenancies of which have expired by effluxion of time even when they are outside the said Ordinance. The Tribunal also has power to grant consequential relief. Another widely used jurisdiction of this Tribunal is to determine building management disputes. Such disputes arise from, among others, the interpretation and enforcement of the provisions of the Building Management Ordinance (Cap. 344) and deeds of mutual covenant, the appointment or dissolution of management committees, requisitions for owners' meetings and appointment of building management agent. The Tribunal also has unlimited jurisdiction to determine the amount of compensation payable by the Government to a person whose land has been compulsorily resumed or has suffered a reduction in value because of public developments. The Tribunal can also order the sale of land for redevelopment purpose under the Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance (Cap. 545). The Tribunal also exercises appellate jurisdiction over (i) determinations by the Commissioner of Rating and Valuation under the Rating Ordinance (Cap. 116); (ii) determinations by the Director of Lands under the Government Rent (Assessment and Collection) Ordinance (Cap. 515); and (iii) determinations by the Director of Housing under the Housing Ordinance (Cap. 283). In exercising its jurisdiction, the Tribunal has the same powers to grant remedies and relief, legal or equitable, as the Court of First Instance of the High Court. Parties may appoint counsel or solicitors to appear before the Tribunal or, as is often the case, they may appear in person. The tribunal has a President who is a Judge of the Court of First Instance. There are currently two Presiding Officers who are District Judges, and three members.

The Labour Tribunal

The Labour Tribunal on 36 Gascoigne Road, Kowloon

The Labour Tribunal was set up in 1973 to provide a quick, inexpensive and informal procedure for adjudicating disputes between employees and employers. It deals with claims arising out of a breach of a contract of employment. Claims may include wages in lieu of notice, arrears of wages, statutory holiday pay, annual leave pay, sickness allowance, maternity leave pay, bonus/double pay, severance pay, and long service payments. Claimants can also seek orders for reinstatement or re-engagement; for awards of compensation or terminal payments. Proceedings are mostly conducted in Cantonese before a Presiding Officer. Legal representation is not allowed. Any party aggrieved may appeal on a point of law to the Court of First Instance. There are approximately 8 Presiding Officers, including one Principal Presiding Officer. The tribunal is located at the South Kowloon Law Courts Building in Gascoigne Road.

The Small Claims Tribunal

The Small Claims Tribunal was established in 1976. It deals with monetary claims arising from contract or tort, involving amounts not exceeding $50,000. Hearings are informal and usually conducted in Cantonese. Legal representation is not allowed. Parties may authorise a representative (other than a lawyer) to appear in court. Any party aggrieved by the decision of an Adjudicator may appeal on a point of law to the Court of First Instance. There are approximately nine Adjudicators, including a Principal Adjudicator. The Small Claims Tribunal is situated at the Wan Chai Law Courts Building.

The Obscene Articles Tribunal

The Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance came into force in 1987 providing for the establishment of the Obscene Articles Tribunal. The work of this tribunal covers two main aspects. Firstly, it is responsible for the classification of articles submitted by any public officer, author, printer, manufacturer, publisher, distributor, copyright owner etc. Secondly, the tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction to determine the question of obscenity or indecency when this issue arises in any civil or criminal proceedings in any court. The Obscene Articles Tribunal consists of a Magistrate and two or more lay adjudicators. Lay adjudicators are selected from a panel consisting of members of the public. The tribunal is situated at the Eastern Law Courts Building.

Appointment of Judges and Judicial Officers

Judges and judicial officers are appointed by the Chief Executive of the HKSAR after receiving secret advice and recommendations from the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission. The scope of appointees covers all those who preside over the Court of Final Appeal, Court of Appeal, Court of First Instance, District Court, Family Court, Magistrates' Courts, Lands Tribunal, Labour Tribunal, Small Claims Tribunal, Coroners' Courts and Competition Tribunal. The Commission is a statutory body established under the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission Ordinance and composed of the Chief Justice, Secretary for Justice (themselves appointed to office by the Chief Executive) and seven others appointed by the Chief Executive of the HKSAR: two judges, one barrister, one solicitor and three other persons unconnected with legal practice. Appointed members serve terms of two years and can be re-appointed for further terms. Decisions are made with a maximum of two dissenters on any vote. Apart from providing a certificate or testimonial in respect of a candidate, provision of any other unsolicited information to any member is likely to be considered an attempt to influence that member's deliberation and result in criminal prosecution and imprisonment for two years.


Hong Kong judges wear British-style outfits, including wigs made of horsehair, with white gloves, girdles and scarlet-coloured robes added for official ceremonies.[1]

In the lower courts, magistrates are addressed as sir or madam, and district court judges as Your Honour. In the superior courts of record, namely the Court of Final Appeal and the High Court (which consists of the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance), judges are addressed as My Lord or My Lady and referred to as Your Lordship or Your Ladyship, following the English tradition. Masters of the High Court are addressed as Master. When trials are conducted in Chinese, judges were addressed, in Cantonese, as Fat Goon Dai Yan (法官大人, "Judge, Your Lordship") before the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China, and as Fat Goon Gok Ha (法官閣下, "Judge, Your Honour") since 1997. "Fat Goon" (法官) literally means "judge".

In writing, the post-nominal letters PJ is used to refer to a permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal and NPJ to a non-permanent judge. In the High Court, the abbreviation JA is used to denote a justice of appeal, and the letter J refers to a judge of the Court of First Instance.

See also


  1. "Day in pictures." BBC. 17 February 2005.

External links