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Not just another old building
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After a quarter of a century, the Hong Kong judiciary will return to its rightful home, the grand Supreme Court Building, presently occupied by the Legislative Council.

It will be a solemn occasion for those of us who believe that the common law system and independent judiciary, steeped in the tradition of form and function, is the final line of defense for our way of life. It is most reassuring to know that our rights can find protection in the court if the need to do so should arise.

I am happy to say that as a Hong Kong person, I have never felt my rights threatened either by the government or the police, whose respect for the law was seldom questioned, especially in the past several decades. In so doing, they have set an example to the populace who believe that the law is always on their side.

Such confidence was won by our independent judiciary which has taken great care to ensure that justice is seen to be dispensed fairly, equitably and without undue delays. Every now and then, some self-styled reformists, for lack of anything worthwhile to do, would try to make a mockery of what is seen as the pomp and circumstance of the legal proceedings in our courts, where judges and lawyers must wear wigs and gowns. But these critics have missed the point.

Pageantry is very much a part of our legal system. It helps to reinforce our impression of the authority and dignity of the judiciary. Most of us know very little of how the legal system really works. For that reason, our impression of it has a major effect on our confidence in it.

That is why I believe the government has made the right decision by moving Hong Kong's highest court, which is known as the Court of Final Appeal, back to its stately old home. Anyone who has seen it would be impressed by the well-proportioned architecture of the building, surrounded by the tall office towers in the center of Hong Kong's financial district.

As Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang has said: "The building is the most appropriate location for the (Court of Final Appeal), having regard to the court's status as the city's final appellate court at the apex of the judicial system."

The building bears all the elements of neo-classical design - symmetrical shape, tall columns that rise to the full height of the building, a triangular pediment, and a domed roof. On its pediment above the main entrance stands the larger-than-life statue of Justice, the blindfolded Greek goddess Themis, holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other.

Ingress Bell and Sir Aston Webb, who also created the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Buckingham Palace facade in London, designed the Hong Kong Supreme Court Building, which was completed in 1912 and had served as the seat of justice until 1984. The government decision to move the High Court, as it was known then, to an old and much more modest building in a secluded area up the hill stirred a storm of protests from traditionalists. Talks of enriching the government coffers by selling the plot of the Supreme Court Building to private developers for the construction of yet another high-rise office complex sounded downright sacrilegious.

I am happy the government has resisted such an urge. Of all the historic buildings in Hong Kong, this is the one that deserves to be preserved the most. Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said that returning the building to the court will "accord fully with the spirit of conserving heritage".

The timing of the move in 2012 seems perfect. The building will celebrate its centenary that year.

E-mail: jamesleung@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily April 21, 2009)

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