Here's an overview of the legal system in Hong Kong and where to get legal aid or assistance.
4 March 2014| Last updated on 16 August 2017
Law in Hong Kong the basic lawThe law of Hong Kong is based on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The constitutional framework for the legal system is provided by the Hong Kong Basic Law. Under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, the legal framework of Hong Kong is based on the English common law, supplemented by local legislation.
The legal system in Hong Kong is therefore similar to the common law systems used in England and Wales and other Commonwealth countries. In contrast, the legal system of the People's Republic of China is akin to those in Continental Europe with influence from socialist law. The Hong Kong judiciary has had a long reputation for its fairness and was recently rated as the best judicial system in Asia by a North Carolina think tank.
The Department of Justice website has all the information on the law of the country including the basic laws, criminal and civil law and customary and family law. We take a look at the overview of the law in Hong Kong according to the Depatment of Justice.
The rule of law
Information based on the Departmental publication "Legal System in Hong Kong" printed in 2008; please refer to the websites concerned, as provided, for more detailed or latest information regarding the issues involved.
The "rule of law" refers to some of the fundamental principles of law that govern the way in which power is exercised in Hong Kong. The rule of law has several different meanings and corollaries. Its principal meaning is that the power of the government and all of its servants shall be derived from law as expressed in legislation and the judicial decisions made by independent courts. At the heart of Hong Kong's system of government lies the principle that no one, including the Chief Executive, can do an act which would otherwise constitute a legal wrong or affect a person's liberty unless he can point to a legal justification for that action. If he cannot do so, the affected person can resort to a court which may rule that the act is invalid and of no legal effect. Compensation may be ordered in the affected person's favour. This aspect of the rule of law is referred to as the principle of legality.
One corollary of the principle of legality can be summarised as equality before the law. It is fundamental that all persons, regardless of race, rank, politics or religion, are subject to the laws of the land. Further, the rule of law requires that the courts are independent of the executive. This independence is crucial if impartial rulings are to be given when the legality of acts of government falls to be decided.
Legality and equality before the law are two fundamental facets of the rule of law. But the principle demands something more, otherwise it would be satisfied by giving the government unrestricted discretionary powers. A further meaning of the rule of law, therefore, is to be found in a system of rules which restrict discretionary power. To this end the courts have developed a set of guidelines aimed at ensuring that statutory powers are not used in ways which the legislature did not intend.
These guidelines relate to both the substance and the procedures relating to the exercise of executive power. An example of the former is where a court concludes that a decision which purports to be authorised by a statutory power is plainly unreasonable and cannot have been envisaged by the legislature. An example of the latter is where a decision has been made without according the party affected the opportunity of being heard in circumstances where the legislature must have envisaged that such an opportunity would have been given. In both cases a court would hold that the decisions were legally invalid.
Basic Law ensures that the legal system in the HKSAR will continue to give effect to the rule of law, by providing that the laws previously in force in Hong Kong (that is, the common law, rules of equity, ordinances, subordinate legislation and customary law) shall be maintained, save for any that contravene the Basic Law, and subject to subsequent amendment by the HKSAR legislature.
The Basic Law
Nature of the Basic Law
The Basic Law of the HKSAR was enacted by the National People's Congress in accordance with the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. It is akin to a mini-constitution for the HKSAR. It was promulgated on 4 April 1990 and took effect on 1 July 1997 on the establishment of the HKSAR. All the systems and policies practised in the HKSAR must be based on the provisions of the Basic Law. These include the social and economic systems; the system for safeguarding the fundamental rights and freedoms of its residents; the executive, legislative and judicial systems; and the relevant policies. Furthermore, no law enacted by the legislature of the HKSAR may contravene the Basic Law.
The most prominent feature of the Basic Law is the underlying principle of "one country, two systems" whereby the socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the HKSAR, and the previous capitalist system and way of life is to remain unchanged for 50 years.
Under the Basic Law, all the laws previously in force in Hong Kong (that is, the common law, rules of equity, ordinances, subordinate legislation and customary law) shall be maintained, except for any that contravene the Basic Law and subject to any amendment by the HKSAR legislature. National laws of the People's Republic of China shall not be applied in the HKSAR except for a number of such laws relating to defence and foreign affairs which are listed in Annex III to the Basic Law.
Relationship between the Central Authorities and the HKSAR
The National People's Congress through the Basic Law authorises the HKSAR to exercise a high degree of autonomy directly under the Central People's Government. The HKSAR enjoys executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, in accordance with provisions of the Basic Law. Although foreign affairs relating to the HKSAR are the responsibility of the Central People's Government, the HKSAR is authorised to conduct relevant external affairs on its own in accordance with the Basic Law. The Central People's Government is also responsible for the defence of the HKSAR, but the responsibility of maintaining public order in the HKSAR is a matter for its government.
Fundamental rights protected by the Basic Law
The Basic Law details the fundamental rights, freedoms and duties of the residents of the HKSAR. These rights include the right to equality before the law; freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike; freedom of movement; freedom of conscience; and freedom of religious belief.
The Basic Law also guarantees that the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and of the International Labour Conventions as applied to Hong Kong will remain in force.
The political structure of the HKSAR
The Chief Executive is the head of the HKSAR and is accountable to the Central People's Government and the HKSAR. He is assisted in policy making by theLink will open in new windowExecutive Council of the HKSAR. The Chief Executive presides over the Executive Council and appoints its members.
The main powers and functions of the Government of the HKSAR (which is headed by the Chief Executive) include the formulation and implementation of policies, the conduct of administrative affairs and the drawing up and introduction of budgets and legislation.
The HKSAR's legislature is the Legislative Council, and the Basic Law prescribes the specific method for forming the Legislative Council and its procedures for voting on bills and motions. Under the Basic Law, the Legislative Council's functions include the making of laws, approving budgets and public expenditure and monitoring the work of the government in general.
The common law and the rules of equity
Common law and the rules of equity are to be found primarily in the judgments of the superior courts in Hong Kong and other common law jurisdictions. In historical terms, reports of judgments handed down by judges have, since at least the 15th century, established in detail the legal principles regulating the relationship between state and citizen, and between citizen and citizen. There are now some hundreds of thousands of reported cases in common law jurisdictions which comprise the common law. The rights relating to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from arbitrary arrest or imprisonment have been spelt out in cases which were decided more than three centuries ago.
As we have seen, these have now been underpinned by provisions in the Basic Law.
The common law's most distinguishing hallmark is reliance on a system of case precedent, not restricted to judicial decisions generated within any single jurisdiction, but case law from all jurisdictions throughout the common law world. Article 84 of the Basic Law provides that the courts of the HKSAR may refer to the precedents of other common law jurisdictions. In addition, the Court of Final Appeal and theLink will open in new windowJudiciary of the HKSAR is given power to invite judges from other common law jurisdictions to participate in the judicial process